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An image from Baldwin's book on balloon flight showing Chester, in which he claims to have reached an altitude of four miles.

In 1785 the first issue of the Daily Universal Register, later known as The Times, was published in London. Later that year, and duly reported, a remarkable balloon flight started at Chester Castle. The aeronaut was a Thomas Baldwin of Hoole, bearer of a name which seems to have caused more confusion in the history of ballooning than any other. Correspondents of Thomas Baldwin included the antiquarian Thomas Pennant and he was very well informed about contemporary developments in ballooning. Until comparatively recently Baldwin was largely forgotten.

News from France

Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, GCB, PRS (24 February [O.S. 13 February] 1743 – 19 June 1820)[1] was an English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences. Banks made his name on the 1766 natural-history expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador. He took part in Captain James Cook's first great voyage (1768–1771), visiting Brazil, Tahiti, and after 6 months in New Zealand, Australia, returning to immediate fame. He held the position of president of the Royal Society for over 41 years, from 1778. He advised King George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and by sending botanists around the world to collect plants, he made Kew the world's leading botanical gardens. He is credited for bringing 30,000 plant specimens home with him; amongst which, he discovered 1,400.

In August 1783, Banks began to recieve reports from France about ballloon flights. One of his correspondents was the American ambassador ro France, and fellow scientist (in those days, "natural philosopher") Benjamin Franklin, who descibed how the Montgolfier brothers has demonstrated balloons of the Chinese "Kongming" lantern type, although Franklin did not, as far as is known, refer to the Chinese. These lanterns were already known in Europe, since Bartolomeu de Gusmão, using a large-scale version of such a lantern, is often cited as "the first man to fly a hot air balloon": on 8th August 1709, in the hall of the Casa da Índia in Lisbon, Portugal (without any payload). The smaller lanterns (balão) had become a popular feature of Portuguese festivals, but Gusmão may have been prevented from taking his ideas further by the Inquisition.


According to later reports Joseph Montgolfier, the son of a French paper manufacturer, came up with the idea of a balloon independently of the Chinese and Portuguese in November 1782, while watching his wife's chemise inflated by the heat from a fire: he even suggested invading Gibraltar by the use of hundreds of paper balloons, each carrying a soldier (or two).

On Nov. 21, 1783, the first manned untethered flight took place in a Montgolfier hot air balloon with Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis d’Arlandes, as passengers. The balloon sailed over Paris for 5.5 miles (9 kilometres) in about 25 minutes.

The Montgolfiers first demonstrated a working balloon before the Etats particuliers, the diocesan assembly of the Vivarais region, on a rainy June 4, 1783. It seems that one reason was to advertise their paper business. The following morning, at the brothers’ request, the Etats wrote an official account (procès-verbal) of the trial they had witnessed, establishing the Montgolfier brothers of Annonay as the globe’s inventors. By June 28 that report was in the hands of Henri Lefèvre d’Ormesson, controller general of finances, who forwarded it to Nicolas de Condorcet, secretary of the French Académie des sciences, requesting a response. At its next meeting, 2nd July 1783, the academy appointed a five-man commission to examine the invention. Three members were well known to Benjamin Franklin: Lavoisier, Desmarest, and Le Roy. News of the Annonay experiment spread quickly in the scientific community. Charles Blagden learned of it almost immediately from members of the Académie des sciences. Franklin was given the procès-verbal and “Observations” to read, and had his secretary make copies.

It would be another several weeks before the general public would read an accurate description of the experiment. In the meantime, what purported to be an eyewitness account was published on July 10 in the "Affiches, annonces, et avis divers", a summary of public notices and other news. The anonymous letter, written by an Annonay landowner with no love for the Montgolfiers, portrayed the experiment as a harebrained scheme concocted by a pair of reckless brothers who were determined to go up in the sky and would not stop until one of their necks was broken. Their contraption was shaped like a house, measured 16 × 16 × 36 feet, and had burst into flames upon landing, terrifying the peasantry into believing that the moon had detached itself from the sky, signaling the Last Judgment. A variant of this letter was reprinted on 26 July 1783 in the Mercure de France, a prominent weekly news journal. On the 27th July 1783, Franklin wrote to Joseph Banks and added a post-script which read:

  • "Dr Blagden will acquaint you with the Experiment of a vast Globe sent up into the Air, much talk’d of here at present, & which if prosecuted may furnish Means of new Knowledge."

From this we can gather that knowledge of the Mongolfier experiments was available in England by mid 1783. Documents also show that when the Académie des sciences were considering the experiments it was soon realised (probably by Lavoisier) that hygrogen gas would provide much more lifting power than hot air.

Manned Flight

The first manned (hot air) balloon ascent took place in Paris on October 15, 1783 in a tethered balloon. While always associated with the Montgolfier brothers, they did not actually make the first ascent themselves but allowed an enthusiastic friend, the school-teacher Pilâtre de Rozier to take the risk. Although de Rozier ran a private science museum in Paris, a part of his motivation may have been to attract les femmes. De Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes (a French marquis) made their first untethered flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon on 21 November 1783. The unfortunate de Rozier soon became (in 1785) one of the first victims of an "air-crash", but a "balloon craze" struck Europe. The first hot-air balloons drew huge crowds, inspiring onlookers to cry, laugh, even faint. One witness wrote:

  • “Since these exhibitions, there seems to prevail a kind of aerial phrenzy among us. The term ‘balloon’ is not only in the mouth of everyone, but all our world seems to be in the clouds.”

For some, the new invention was the culmination of Enlightenment science, the pinnacle of human ingenuity. Grand schemes abounded: using balloons to carry mail, to improve cartography, to bombard enemy fortifications. Then, almost overnight, the fervor subsided as everyone sobered to the fact that these vehicles, which couldn’t be steered, were largely useless. Benjamin Franklin observed the first flight from his terrace in Paris: a beautiful, blue-and-gold ovoid, like a giant Fabergé egg, floating above the Seine. As Franklin recollected:

  • "Someone asked me, ‘What’s the use of a balloon?’ I replied, ‘What’s the use of a newborn baby?’" - an epigram that would ricochet around the world.

For others the balloons had little to do with science. As one writer comments: "Many who commented on the ‘balloon craze’ in Regency and Victorian England expressed tremendous moral ambivalence about balloon ascensions, symbols not just of discovery, innovation, and exotic travel, but of excited crowds, riots, humbuggery, French decadence, reckless endangerment of passengers and spectators, and the loss of reason and moral propriety". Mildly erotic literature of the 1780's on occasion used the word "balloon" as a advertising hook in the title: one weakly salacious satire was entitled "The devil in a hot air balloon" and featured neither the devil nor any balloons. Women who ascended with male companions were considered to have the lowest moral standards and there was much gossip about their supposed activities while aloft.

Early Balloonists

James Tytler: apothecary, drunk and early hot-air balloonist.

James Tytler (17 December 1745[1] – 11 January 1804) was a Scottish apothecary, regular drunkard and the editor of an edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Under the pseudonym "Ranger" Tytler published "Ranger's Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, a private book detailing 66 working ladies in the city (with fold-out map)". Tytler became the first person in Britain to fly by ascending in a hot air balloon (1784), almost a month before his rival to the title, Vincenzo Lunardi, made a hydrogen balloon ascent in London. Tytler's venture was expensive, but succeeded after several attempts on 25 August 1784, in Edinburgh. His balloon rose a few feet from the ground. Two days later he managed to reach a height of some 350 feet, travelling for half a mile between Green House on the northern edge of what is now Holyrood Park to the nearby village of Restalrig. Later trials were less fortunate: in one flight he had to cut away his fire basket and fly clinging to ropes when the crowd rioted. In October his balloon only took off after Tytler left the basket, to the disappointment of the crowd. Having previously been 'the toast of Edinburgh', he was ridiculed and called a coward. His last flight was on 26 July 1785. He was outlawed in absentia by the Scottish High Court because of political dissent and moved to Belfast in 1793, then in 1795 to the United States. In Salem, Massachusetts, he edited the Salem Register, published some works and sold medicine. On 9 January 1804, Tytler left his house drunk; two days later the sea returned his corpse. Robert Burns had described Tytler as:

  • "…an obscure, tippling, but extraordinary body of the name of Tytler commonly known by the name of "Balloon Tytler", from his having projected a balloon, a mortal who, though he drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a sky-lighted hat, and knee-buckles as unlike as George-by-the-Grace-of-God and Solomon-the-Son-of-David; yet that same unknown drunken mortal is author and compiler of three-fourths of Elliot's pompous Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he composed at half-a-guinea a week."

When Henry Cavendish first identified elemental hydrogen, its low desity was soon noted. Joseph Black of Edinburgh was inspired by Joseph Priestly's writings of 1774 to attempt to fill a bladder with the gas, but achieved no success. In 1782, Black's student, Tiberio Cavallo investigated further but was unable to find a balloon casing which was sufficiently gas-tight (other than soap bubbles). Cavallo published an early book on ballooning: The History and Practice of Aerostation in 1785.

It was left to the French to adopt a new process for coating cloth with rubber, by dissolving the rubber in turpentine. The hydrogen balloon (called "The globe") made its first flight in August 1783. Designed by Professor Jacques Charles and Les Frères Robert, it carried no passengers. On 1 December 1783, their second hydrogen-filled balloon made a manned flight piloted by Jacques Charles himself and Nicolas-Louis Robert. This occurred just ten days after the first manned flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon. Their 380-cubic-metre, hydrogen-filled balloon was fitted with a hydrogen release valve and was covered with a net from which the basket was suspended. Sand ballast was used to control altitude. They ascended to a height of about 1,800 feet (550 m) and landed at sunset in Nesles-la-Vallée after a 2-hour 5 minute flight covering 36 km. Jacques Charles then decided to ascend again, but alone this time because the balloon had lost some of its hydrogen. This time it ascended rapidly to an altitude of about 3,000 metres, where he saw the sun again. He began suffering from aching pain in his ears so he "valved" to release gas, and descended to land gently about 3 km away at Tour du Lay. While Charles flight was far more successful than the "Montgolfier" ascent in terms of duration, distance and altitude it is not as well-remembered.

Hydrogen in Britain

The first manned balloon flight in England was performed by the somewhat flamboyant Vincent Lunardi, who is generally reported to have been an incorrigible flirt. On 15 September 1784, Lunardi took to the skies with his dog and cat, and a caged pigeon, in a hydrogen balloon fitted with oars, with which he intended to control his course. One oar fell to the ground as the balloon rose, but this did not prevent him from occasionally working the one remaining oar and in fact believing that it was due to his labors that he was able to descend the first time (at what is still called "Balloon Corner" in Welham Green) to release his cat from the basket, for "the poor animal had been sensibly affected by the cold.". The cat was perhaps not the only casualty, it was gossip at the time that when Lunardi dropped his oar during a later flight a moman in the audience fainted away and perished. On January 7th of 1785 Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries traveled from Dover to Calais in a hydrogen gas balloon, becoming the first to cross the English Channel by air.

Hoole Hall "in 1846".

Hydrogen balloon flights were expensive to undertake, as vast quantities of the gas had to be generated by the reaction of vitriol (sulphuric acid) with metal filings (or simply scrap iron), so flights became something of a circus to raise the funds needed. Meanwhile in Chester, Thomas Baldwin (1742-1804, or "Baldwyn"), tried, in 1783 after resigning from his position as a Haslingden curate, to fund the construction of a balloon by subscription, but was unable to raise enough money. A display of Thomas' exploits, which included his design for a "grand naval air balloon" from 1784, was until recently still found at Hoole Hall. Balwin was a clergyman whose father lived at Hoole Hall: English Heritage has Hoole Hall being built for the Rev. John Baldwin c1760, and the property passed to Thomas when John died in 1793.


Baldwin's early interest in balloons is evident from his letter to a potential supporter from December 1784. He was trying to raise money for the construction of a balloon and wrote to his friend, the antiquarian and travel writer Thomas Pennant:

  • "I am still prosecuting the subject with the greatest ardor and with the probability of its taking place"

Baldwin proposed a "grand naval balloon" made of an incombustible material as "light as unvarnished silk and much stronger" which could transport "great weights" and woulf be "subject to direction". Even at this early stage Baldwin had quite detailed thoughts about improvements to ballooning - such as the use of springs to enable the balloon to "alight without a shock". He also accused French balloonists of stealing some of his ideas and suggested that the balloon should have been called "a Baldwin" rather than "a Montgolfier". Also in December 1784 Baldwin published his "Proposal at large, for the Construction of a Grand Naval Air-Balloon". This included sails, oars and a rudder as well as "a metallic cylinder of rarified air" whose "heat will regulate and confine the horizontal course of the balloon". It is not clear what this last suggestion could mean, but Baldwin is probably suggesting the combination of a hydrogen and hot air balloon. The purpose of this balloon was to:

  • "..compel the invisible fluid which surrounds us, to carry burdens in proportion to its levity; to traverse this subtle element; to enter, as it were, into a new world; to soar above all terrestrial objects, and make the immense sea of air, like the ocean, subservient to the purposes of man"

Subscriptions were opened by Baldwin at the Whitefriars bank of Robert Hesketh in Chester as well as in other cites, including London. From this it is evident that Baldwin either had a remarkably fertile mind or that he had given thought to the matter for some time. As will later be noted, he claimed to have performed experiments with trial hydrogen balloons as early as "the latter End of the Year 1783". It is not known with any certainty when Baldwin first became aware of French balloon experiments, but this must have been in the latter half of 1783, when news first reach England via Benjamin Franklin. As noted, Baldwin was certainly a correspondent of known literary figures, including Pennant, and later in life he would engage in correspondence with other noted inventors on subjects ranging from musical notation and music printing to steam-powered boats. Unfortunately Baldwin was unable to raise the finance needed to construct a man-carrying balloon.

Lunardi In Chester

In September 1785, when Lunardi brought his "Flying Circus" to Chester, he allowed Thomas Baldwin to hire his balloon and make a solo ascent so that he could sketch some aerial views. Lunardi's visit to Chester was advertised as the occasion for his ascent in a hydrogen balloon from Chester Castle. However, Lunardi suffering "a burn to the hand from an acid used to make the hydrogen, and his servants were left to make the ascent, in order to appease the angry crowd". Baldwin's prayers had been answered.

The European Magazine gives another version of events:

The inner bailey of Chester Castle, from above. The City Walls can be seen crossing an arch at the bottom of the image. The square "Flag Tower" is visible (it does not protrude above the walls). The tall square building is the Agricola Tower and the large building is Napier House.
  • "Lunardi met with a very unfortunate accident which prevented him from ascending at Chester this week according to promise - the circumstance was this: - When the balloon was nearly inflated and the car brought to be attached to it, Lunardi through his eagerness to pursue so favourite a science by some accident burnt his arm and hand with the vitriol in a most terrible manner; in short to such a degree as to render his ascension impossible; however Lunardi told his servant to get in which he did and ascended without the least degree of fear to the satisfaction of the multitude He went nine miles and came to Chester about nine o'clock with the balloon."

Looking in the records of the Chester Chronicle we find no mention of the "servant" but are told (26th August 1785) that:

  • "Lunardi appologised for the accident which delayed the ascent of his balloon to so late an hour"
As reported in the "New Annual Register": later known as "The Times".

The paper goes on to report that Lunardi had finally taken-off the Monday before and flown to Hatton Heath, six miles distant.

Baldwin's Preparations

On Friday, 2nd September the Chester Chronicle reported:

  • "Mr Lunardi presents his respectful complements to the public with thanks for the favours that he has already received and begs leave to inform them that he has resigned his place in his balloon to T.B. esq a Gentleman of Chester"

However his flight came about, Baldwin then wrote a highly detailed and lengthy account of the voyage, with the impressive title: Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the Eighth of September, 1785, taken from Minutes made during the Voyage: Hints on the Improvement of Balloons, and Mode of Inflation by Steam: Means to Prevent their Descent over Water: Occasional Enquiries into the State of the Atmosphere, etc. The Whole Serving as an Introduction to Aerial Navigation: with a Copious Index. Baldwin wrote:

  • "On Thursday the 8th of September 1785, at 9 in the Morning was first fired one of the Cannons (a six-pounder) from the Castle-yard to inform the City and Neighbourhood that the necessary Preparations were making to inflate the Balloon."

He started with the release of a smaller balloon of his own as a "sounding" device, making it quite clear that he had almost beaten the French to it with his own earlier work:

  • "At 10 o'Clock the process began with the inflation of an airistatic Globe eighteen feet in Circumference of Silk Tiffany made the latter End of the Year 1783 and decorated with Painting, Mottoes and Devices: in the Performance of which little Work, Mr Baldwin was the Sole Projector, Architect, Workman and Chymyst .. It was intended to serve as a sort of Pioneer, to delineate the Track of the Great Balloon. It fell at some Miles Distant, tis said unfortunately on a Hedge and was presently torn to Pieces by the Eagerness and Avarice of the Pursuers who expected and undeservedly obtained the Reward promised in the letter appended to it."

A similar "pilot balloon" had been released on 4th November 1783 by a Count Francesco Zambeccari. Zambeccari later went on to relase a further balloon made of oiled silk which was ten feet in diameter. It was gilded to make it more impermiable to hydrogen and flew for 48 miles. Micael Biaggini released an even larger 16 feet (4.9 m) balloon from Grosvenor Square in January 1784. Zambeccari was commissioned to launch a balloon in Venice in April 1784, an occasion that was painted by Francesco Guardi. Comparing these dates with the correspondence between Baldwin and Thomas Pennant it is strongly arguable that Baldwin had kept himself well-informed of balloon developments and his own research closely paralleled that of others in the field.

As reported in the "American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge", Volume 1, Issue 6. In this it is claimed he reached an estimated altitude of seven miles.

Baldwin's Flight

Baldwin started his voyage of discovery by weighing himself, something which he did in private. He recorded his weight in his book as 160 lbs (11.5 stone). He then climbed into the balloon's basket and handed out the lead weights which had been placed in it while it was being inflated. Baldwin initially feared he would be blown out to sea:

  • "Just after his first ascent being in a well watered and maritime part of the country he observed a remarkable and regular tendency of the balloon towards the sea but shortly after rising into another current of air he escaped the danger the upper current he says was visible to him at the time of his ascent by a lofty sound stratum of clouds flying in a safe direction. The perspective appearance of things to him was very remarkable. The lowest bed of vapour that first appeared as cloud was pure white in detached fleeces increasing as they rose they presently coalesced and formed as he expresses it a sea of cotton tufting here and there by the action of the air in the undisturbed part of the clouds so that the whole became an extended white floor of cloud the upper surface being smooth and even. Above this white floor he observed at great and unequal distances a vast assemblage of thunder clouds each parcel consisting of whole acres in the densest form he compares their form and appearance to the smoke of pieces of ordnance which had consolidated as it were into masses of snow and penetrated through the upper surface or white floor of common clouds there remaining visible and at rest Some clouds had motions in slow and various directions forming an appearance truly stupendous and majestic." (Annals of Some Remarkable Aërial and Alpine Voyages)

The book included everything from an inventory of the items taken (including the weight of each item) to a florid description of his sensations as he flew:

  • ..what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty! A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture: to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminished almost beyond the bounds of credibility.
Thomas Baldwin's aerial view of Chester which can be seen, together with the River Dee in the corner of this engraving based on his sketch. This is believed to be the first ever actual view of the earth from above.

The scientifically-minded Baldwin carried out experiments whilst in the air, including sampling foods to see if they tasted the same (they did - "Contrary to what travelers have reported from the Peak of Teneriffe") and carrying feathers "loose in the pocket and thrown out when entwined in Clouds or at any other Time to see the rise or fall of the balloon". Other necessary equipment of the well-prepared Baldwin included: two red lead pencils ("pointed both ends"), a pointed knife, a bottle of brandy and water ("for experiments"), a cork-screw, confectionaries such as bread, biscuits and fruit, 2 needles with large eyes ("raw silk already threaded and knotted"), a map on a board ("also to serve as a table"), Dutch twine, 3 flags, a yard of thin ribbon, a magnet and iron filings in a pewter dish and cover, eight bladders ("half blown and different colours for decoration"), a speaking trumpet and "a live pidgeon, not forgetting Pepper. Salt, Ginger to try the Effects of Tastes which have been said to become insipid on the Peak of Teneriffe".


Baldwin's estimates of altitude appear flawed. He says in one account that he estimated that he reached a height of seven miles (and elsewhere says four miles). At that altitude, probably anywhere above about five miles, he would have soon passed-out for lack of oxygen. Rozier and the chemist Joseph Proust had reached above two miles in 1784, but until 1803, and the ascent of the stage magician Étienne-Gaspard Robert, no-one had reached Baldwin's claimed altitude of above four (or seven) miles.

Baldwin's desciption of his struggle to release gas.

Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher reached almost seven miles in a coal-gas balloon in 1862, but Glaisher lost consciousness during the ascent due to the low air pressure and cold temperature of −11 °C (12 °F). Captain Hawthorne C. Gray (United States Army Air Corps) surpassed this record only in 1927, in a helium balloon, and died during his descent when the bottled oxygen supply he carried with him ran out. Based on the images he sketched, and the evidence of his barometer, it seems likely that Baldwin probably reached an altitude of 1-2 miles.

Baldwin also had some problems with his valve. It appears that the string which operated the valve somehow became caught and Baldwin gives an account of how he struggled to reach it to release gas. Eventually he had to clamber up the "rigging" of his balloon to reach the valve. Glaisher and Coxwell's problem with the stuck valve is relatively well-known due to the later dramatic illustrations of Coxwell clambering up the rigging while Glaisher slumps unconcious over the side of the basket.

The account of the voyage itself is interspersed with and followed by discourses upon hints and improvements such as the best time of day for voyages, how to land in windy weather, and how best to conduct experiments while aloft. His first near-landing (at Kingley) was dramatic, and he later flew on to return once and for all to terra firma at Rixton:

  • "..approaching a third Hedge the Aironaut cut away the Barometer-Frame; threw out the basket with the Bottle and Tunning Dish; the Spreaking Trumpet; the Woolen GLove; the half Mile of Twine in the Reel with the result that the Car cleared the Hedge."

Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia contains the first British representations of a "real" aerial view, and the city of Chester can be seen in the lower left corner of one image ("A Balloon-Prospect from above the Clouds, or Chromatic View of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aerial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu’ the Air") and in the center of another ("A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation. The Spectator is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View: looking down on the Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds and seeing the City of Chester, as it appeared throu’ the Opening: which discovers the Landscape below, limited, by surrounding Vapour, to something less than two Miles in Diameter. The Breadth of the blue Margin defines the apparent Height of the Spectator in the Balloon (viz. 4 Miles) above the Floor of Clouds, as he hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round into the azure sky."). Despite the well-documented fact that it was Baldwin of Chester who made the ascent, in John McGahey's preparatory sketches for his balloon view of Chester (1855), he for some reason attributes the flight to Lunardi.

Another Flight

Joseph Hemingway records a second flight:

  • 1785: The 1st of September Captain G. French, a gentleman still resident in Chester, ascended in Lunardi's balloon from the Castle Yard, four p.m. and descended at six at Macclesfield, 40 miles. On the 7th, Mr Baldwin ascended from the same place at one p.m. and descended beyond Warrington.

"Mechanics' Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 6" gives an alternate date:

  • "Mr Baldwin on the 8th of September ascended with Mr Lunardi's Balloon from Chester at 40 minutes past one and after ascending to the height of nearly four miles he descended at 53 minutes after three".

"Walkers Hibernian Magazine" gives a slightly different version of events with variant dates:

  • "September 1: Lieutenant French of the Cheshire Militia ascended at Chester in Mr Lunardi's balloon and alighted at Macclesfield forty miles distant in two hours."
  • "September 15: Thomas Baldwyn Esq of Chester ascended from that city in Mr Lunardi's balloon and in two hours and an half alighted at Rixton Moss in Lancashire, 25 miles from Chester."

Little more is recorded about the flight of Lieutenant George French of the Cheshire Militia (or Captain French in the alternative), other than the bare fact that it took place, and that French had some problems getting into the air. French rose three yards and then touched down again, so he dumped all his ballast, along with his provisions, hat and coat before taking off on his flight. It is not clear whether French took the flight "for a lark" or whether this was an attempt to assess the possible military applications of aviation. By co-incidence the 2nd Royal Cheshire Milita barracks was in Macclesfield, where French landed - there is no record of how the Militia reacted.

The next flight from Chester took place on 7th June 1824. The notable balloonist Windham Sadler ascended in a balloon from Chester Castle. It was to be one of his last flights - on 29 Sept Sadler made his thirty-first ascent (at Bolton) but "the wind dashed his car against a lofty chimney, and he was hurled to the ground, sustaining injuries of which he died at eight on the following morning".

John Lowe, a goldsmith of Chester, gave a description of "Bridge Street Row" in 1860 which ends with a mention of several past "characters" including one "Captain French" (possibly the balloonist who ascended from Chester Castle in 1785) who used to frequent the Rows around 1810-20 (when Lowe was a boy). As noted above French was still alive in the early 1830's as noted by Hemingway in his book written at that time.

Baldwin the Man

Baldwin's Book - available as a free "e-book".

We know comparatively little about Baldwin. He was admitted to Peterhouse Cambridge in October 1760 at the age of 19, and was a scholar in 1763. He took his BA in 1765 and his MA in 1768, and was a curate at Haslingden (Lancs) from 1779-83. By the time of his flight he had not yet inherited Hoole from his father, but he was evidently living there as he is listed as a book subscriber living there. According to Ormerod, he sold the estate in 1800. While it has been stated that his father was the rector of St Martin, Chester, he is certainly son of John Baldwin, rector of Plemstall.

The Baldwin family tree is complicated, it appears that the Baldwins were from near Leyland. An earlier Thomas Baldwin became rector of St Andrew, Leyland in 1748 and on his death in 1753 was succeeded by a further Thomas Baldwin. This Thomas appears to have had a son, John who became the Rector of St Peter, Plemstall and father of the balloonist. At some point John was left money by a relative and changed his name to Rigbye. A branch of the Baldwins continued as rectors of Leyland until well into the early 20th Century. Members of the Leyland branch of this family included William Charles Baldwin, an explorer of Africa, heavy game hunter and an early visitor to Victoria Falls after involvement with the famous Dr Livingstone. The last of them, Rev. Octavius De Leyland Baldwin retired in 1912 ending the long line of seven Baldwins who had been incumbents of Leyland for 164 years.

The "National Pipe Archive" has aquired a clay pipe showing a balloonist and marked "Baldwin". As pipes were a noted product of Chester it is possible that this could be related to the Hoole Baldwin, but more likely to be one of the other Baldwin's commented on below.

Baldwin and Science

Baldwin's scientific knowledge is evident from his book. he is familiar enough with mathematics to be able to perform quite complex trigonometry, and to be able to do other calculations relating to physics. He also exhibits a good understanding of chemistry, including how hydrogen as "water gas" can be produced by passing steam over hot iron ("steam reforming"), which had been discovered by Lavoisier and mentioned as a means for filling balloons in Cavallo's book (1785).

Baldwin has been described as having made no real contribution to aeronautics. That ignores several things: Baldwin invented the "Drag Rope" to control the altitude of a balloon. He was the first to abserve several phenomena, as described below, and made the first sketches of the earth from the air. It has also been implied that he was a mere adventurer, but he clearly started work on balloons even before the first flight of the Mongolfier brothers. His book has been descibed as "prolix", but it should be remembered that he was as much writing a vivid description of his flight as also a detailed scientific report on his experiences. The are some articles about Baldwin which are just plain wrong: an article in Hoole Roundabout stated that he invented and experimented with helium balloons - this cannot be correct, Helium was only discovered in 1868, well after Baldwin died in 1804. Helium was first discovered by spectroscopy and the first, small samples of the element only became available in 1895. It was not used in balloons (the C-class blimp) umtil 1921.

The Pilots Glory

Baldwin appears to have been the first to note this during flight. A glory is an optical phenomenon, resembling an iconic saint's halo around the shadow of the observer's head, caused by sunlight or (more rarely) moonlight interacting with the tiny water droplets that compose mist or clouds. The glory consists of one or more concentric, successively dimmer rings, each of which is red on the outside and bluish towards the centre. Due to its appearance, the phenomenon is sometimes mistaken for a circular rainbow, but the latter has a much larger diameter and is caused by different physical processes.

The Principle of Equivalence

Einsteins equivalence principle is why we feel heavier as a lift accellerates upwards, or why a freely falling person is "weightless". Popular accounts often state that Einstein thought of this after he witnessed a painter falling from the roof of a building adjacent to the patent office where he worked. This version of the story leaves unanswered the question of why Einstein might consider his observation of such an unfortunate accident to represent "the happiest thought in his life", and so is possibly untrue. However, Baldwin had made the same observation about pressure on the soles of his feet when he rose in the balloon. Einstein's "happiest thought" led him to develop his Theory of Relativity which seems complex but has everyday consequences such as making GPS work and explains why gold is the colour it is.

Baldwin and Steamboats

Baldwin (after he moved to Prescot, Lancashire) funded the then unknown engineer John Smith, who appears to have built a very early steamboat in 1797. According to the Billing's Liverpool Advertiser, dated the 26th June 1797, his "vessel heavily laden with copper slag, passed along the Sankey Canal ... by the application of steam only ... it appears, that the vessel after a course of ten miles, returned the same evening to St Helen's whence it had set out". This boat was powered by a Newcomen engine working a paddle crankshaft through a beam and connecting rod. The only descriptions of these steamboat developments found so far are in some parts confusing and in others quite plainly wrong.

Baldwin and Musical Notation

In 1798 Baldwin entered into a long correspondence with Charles the 3rd Earl Stanhope concerning a new musical notation. In this letters were used to represent notes. Stanhope’s “letter-music,” an alternative to standard musical notation for the musically illiterate which he developed with Thomas Baldwin, never caught on, nor did Stanhope's machine for transcribing into a kind of shorthand music played on a keyboard instrument. A sample of the Baldwin notation (quavers and elongations are indicated by comma's and dots, upper case letters are minims, lower case are crotchets) reads:

Almost the same tune in conventional notation.
  • "gga/f.g,a/bbc/b.a,g/agf/G." ("God save great George our King, long live our noble King, God save the King")

"Professor Baldwin" (and others)

One reason why the Hoole Baldwin was largely forgotten as a pioneer balloonist may be that there were later a profusion of balloonists named Baldwin. Some appear to have been born with the name while others seem to have adopted the name for publicity purposes.

In the summer of 1888 Londoners flocked in their thousands to marvel at the feats of a dashing American daredevil calling himself Professor Baldwin. The adverts placed in the Times promised it would be ‘the greatest scientific sensation of the age’ but only hinted at what was planned:

  • Professor Baldwin has succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

Baldwin’s act was in fact the Victorian equivalent of a skydive, albeit only from a few thousand feet. He ascended in a balloon before jumping off and parachuting down to safety. This being 1888, the modern parachute was still in its infancy, and illustrations from the Illustrated London News reveal how ‘amateur’ the stunt was. But this was not Hoole's Baldwin, this other Baldwin, who had perfected his act in America before travelling to England, made his first jump at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, July 28, 1888. As The Times reported:

One of Baldwin's at least ten notable namesakes in ballooning came to a sticky end.
  • The aeronaut, who went up alone, and was dressed in tights, held on by the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon and the umbrella hanging by his side. The balloon speedily attained a great height and then the aeronaut leaped or dropped away from it. A moment afterwards he was seen at some distance from the balloon high up in the air beyond the racecourse of the Palace, gracefully, steadily, and quickly descending with his umbrella opened out above him like a monster mushroom.

After landing Baldwin returned to the Palace to be "enthusiastically cheered by the thousands of spectators in the Palace grounds and the adjoining fields." Although the Times reporter doubted whether Baldwin reached the height of 1,000ft being claimed, he noted that "it was certainly one of the most extraordinary and successful sensational feats of modern times."

This Professor Baldwin is not the same as Thomas Scott Baldwin who is now remembered as ‘The Father of the Modern Parachute’ (previous versions having ribs like umbrellas) and its worth was proved years later when Grant Morton made the first successful jump from an aeroplane in California in 1911. Either of these two later Baldwins is often quoted as being the first parachutist ever, but that fame belongs to Louis-Sébastien Lenormand who, on December 26, 1783, jumped from the tower of the Montpellier observatory in front of a crowd that included Joseph Montgolfier, using a 14-foot parachute with a rigid wooden frame.

As for "Professor Baldwin" he apparently came to a sticky end in 1905, when he miscalculated the timing of dynamite (by some accounts rigged to blow up his balloon after he parachuted from it - in other accounts to be dropped), and was "blown to atoms". Reports stated that there was "no trace" of a parrot and monkey which accompanied him on his last flight, and that the largest part of his remains which were strewn over the vast crowd consisted of just a foot.

There are at least ten Baldwins who did something notable in balloons, and they are frequently confused. One of them, Ivy Baldwin, described ballooning as:

  • "..the greatest poison in the world .. one drop could kill you"


When Baldwin was involved with balloons the technology was moving very quickly, both as an entertainment and as a means for scientific discovery. Baldwin was not the first to write a detailed book on ballooning. He was preceeded (1785) by Tiberio Cavallo by at most a year. Cavallo does not mention Baldwin by name but discusses very similar subject matter: including the manufacture of pilot balloons, the use of steam and hot iron to generate hydrogen, magnetic and electrostatic experiments which could usefully be performed at altitude and the hybrid hydrogen/hot-air balloon. Baldwin's attempts to gain investment and his correspondence with Pennant show that he was very much up-to-date with balloon technology and some of his idea's such as the use of a drag rope and his representation of the earth from above seem original. His observations of the "pilot's glory" and the pressure on his feet when rising might seem trivial, but as Baldwin himself writes, who is to know what will turn out to be important to science. In very recent years Balwins work had become better known through his imagery and he is now less "forgotten" than he was. After many years of eclipse he is becoming recognised less as a "mere adventurer" and more as a serious scientist.

Related Pages

Baldwin Balloonists

A later "Professor Baldwin" did stunts rather than science.
  • BALDWIN, Charles BRITAIN (1869?-1920): (student of T. S. Baldwin);
  • BALDWIN, Evelyn USA (1880?-1940): (cousin to Sam Y and Thomas S): polar explorer;
  • BALDWIN, Frederick Alfred ENGLAND (1890?-1950): (RAF WW1);
  • BALDWIN, Harold P. USA (1891?-1970): (Military)
  • BALDWIN, John E. USA (1868-1905): (aka Professor Baldwin - dynamited)
  • BALDWIN, Murray A. USA (1896?-1980): (Military)
  • BALDWIN, Samuel Yates USA (1860?-1920): (assisted brother = Thomas S)
  • BALDWIN, Theodore A. USA (1878?-1940): (Military)
  • BALDWIN, Thomas A. ENGLAND (1740-1810): (of Hoole)
  • BALDWIN, Thomas Sackett USA (1854-1923): (aka Thomas Scott Baldwin, Professor Baldwin - brother to Sam Y)
  • BALDWIN, Ivy USA (1866-1953): (born William Ivy)

Early Balloon Timeline

Not all flights are mentioned. These are just key dates for present purposes:

  • 1776:
 ??? - Hydrogen identified as an element by Henry Cavendish;
  • 1782:
Nov - Joseph Montgolfier has idea for hot air balloon;
  • 1783:
Jun - Montgolfiers demonstrate hot air balloon;
Jul - French Académie des sciences discusses balloons, hydrogen suggested as a lifting agent;
Aug - First unmanned hydrogen balloon experiments by Jacques Charles;
Oct - First tethered manned flight (hot air);
Nov - First manned hot air flight by Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes;
Dec - First hydrogen balloon manned flight by Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert;
 ??? - Baldwin experiments with hydrogen balloons;
  • 1784:
Aug - James Tytler gets aloft in Edinburgh (hot air);
Sep - Vincent Lunardi ascends from London (hydrogen);
Oct - James Sadler makes the second English ascent;
Dec - Baldwin writes to Thomas Pennant about balloons;
Yet another Baldwin, from 1908.
  • 1785:
Jan - English Channel crossed by balloon (Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries);
May - First "aircraft disaster" - balloon burns 100 houses down in Ireland;
Jun - First female balloonist in Britain (Letitia Ann Sage): de Rozier killed in balloon accident;
Sep - French and Baldwin ascend at Chester;
  • 1786:
 ??? - Fletcher of Chester publishes Baldwin's Airopaidia

Sources & links

Early Texts On Ballooning

Modern Books