Biographer Richard Holmes (The Age of Wonder) has long been fascinated by the Romantics and science, and Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air blends his two lifelong passions with a third: ballooning. In some ways his most personal book, Falling Upwards documents more than two centuries of experiments and explorations in aeronautics, anchored with a dash of autobiography.

“Show me a balloon and I’ll tell you a story,” Holmes says, and what stories! There’s John Money, who in 1785 piloted a hydrogen balloon over England to raise money for a hospital, only to be blown out to sea and miraculously rescued. There’s Thomas Harris, who in 1824 died in a balloon crash, but managed to save the life of one “Miss Stocks,” the pretty girl who was with him in the basket. There are the military reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War, and the balloon postal service deployed by the French during the siege of 1870. Pretty Edwardian girls in balloons, brash showmen in balloons and tourists in balloons: all seekers of the “angel’s eye view” of the Earth.

In the past 200 years, balloons have evolved from the early hydrogen balloons of the inventive Montgolfier brothers, to the coal gas balloons of the Victorians, and onward to the relatively safer hot air balloons of today. But the human desire for flight has remained consistent throughout. Ballooning, Holmes tells us, concerns our desire for liberation (as in the thrilling story of the East German family who escaped to West Germany in a homemade balloon in 1978), and is emblematic of a romantic longing to fly and look at humanity from a bird’s-eye view.

How fitting then that Holmes includes—among the many engaging illustrations accompanying his text—the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 11 from the moon in 1969. That haunting image of our blue planet emblematizes the collective desire of each of the aeronauts documented here; as Holmes puts it, “the dream of flight is to see the world differently.”

Erudite and chatty, this is a book for everyone who has ever dreamed of flying.

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