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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. The 1780's were a period widely considered as transitional between the "Age of Enlightenment" and the Industrial Revolution, the 1780s saw the inception of modern philosophy, where the abolishment of monarchies became popular along with the implementation of democracy. With the rise on astronomical, technological, and political discoveries and innovations such as Uranus, cast iron on structures, republicanism and hot air balloons, the 1780s kick-started a rapid global industrialization movement, leaving behind the world's predominantly agrarian customs in the past.

Introduction: Repairing Baldwin's Reputation

Several writers have described Baldwin as a dilettante who took his balloon flight "for a lark" and made no real scientific contribution to aeronautics. One even goes so far as to dismiss him as a "mere adventurer". This is a gross distortion of the truth. Ample evidence exists that Baldwin had a long-standing interest in balloons, had made serious attempts to develop a working balloon at a remarkably early date and that he gave a good deal of thought to the scientific experiments which could be performed while aloft.

The dates in this story are particularly important. The first manned balloon flights took place in October 1783. Baldwin made his ascent in September 1785, less than two years later. As the evidence presented below will show, Baldwin was already involved with balloon technology in 1784, almost certainly less than a year after the initial flight and possibly even earlier.

This article is in several parts:

  • A brief history of ballooning prior to Baldwin;
  • The circumstances and nature of Balwin's flight;
  • Baldwin's contribution to science;
  • Some possible reasons why Baldwin has been discounted;
Chester Castle at the time of Baldwin's flight.

1. The First Balloonists:

Baldwin's Georgian Chester of around 1785 would have had parts which would be recognisable to the modern inhabitant. The four main streets had existed since Roman times, and many of them housed coaching inns, although the travel time to London was had only just come down to a record 22 hurs and 45 minutes. Much of the Norman castle remained although Thomas Harrison's comprehensive rebuild was about to start. The medieval Eastgate and more recently the Bridgegate had been replaced, the Watergate would follow in 1788 as it was runinous, and the Chester Canal had opened (a venture which would soon fail). There was as yet no Leadworks, but some new life had stirred at the Portpool and one of the very first industrial steam engines was about to be installed in Chester. The Grosvenors had just spent £24,000 on winning the general election, of which £15,000 went on drink: the Corporation, from local pride, loyalty to aristocratic patrons, a shared belief in arch-Tory values, and, perhaps most importantly, a very obvious material advantage, co-operated willingly in electoral corruption. Despite the rise of Liverpool and Manchester, Chester still dominated the economy of the western half of Cheshire and north-east Wales, and provided a focus for the leisured classes of a much larger area. The Industrial Revolution would largely pass by Chester as it faded slowly. There was still money about: the recently repaired City Walls were a promenade for the wealthy gentry who had recently subscribed to a new Infirmary.

Science was still in its infancy, but voyages of exploration now sought out new and useful plants and James Hutton published his landmark work on geology in 1785. The world was no-longer seen as never-changing. The first tentative explorations of the atmosphere had consisted of carrying barometers up mountains and, more recently, flying kites into thunderstorms (with sometimes fatal results). The science of gasses was making progress alongside the development of the steam-engine, and specifically the properties of oxygen, had been discovered as early as 1774 by Joseph Priestley, who noted its lightness and explosive qualities when heated in the presence of fuel. The Peace of Paris had recently brought to an end a series of wars involving a newly independent America, Britain, France, Spain and the Dutch Republic to an and led to a few years of relative peace in western Europe. The young Napoleon was just about to graduate and the first bales of cotton were ariving in Britain from the Americas. Dickens was to sum up the spirit of the age in his Tale of Two Cities:

  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.."
De Gusmão's plans for his "air-ship" survive but were hopelessly impractical.

News from France

Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, GCB, PRS (24 February [O.S. 13 February] 1743 – 19 June 1820) 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 that were not known to English botanists.

In August 1783, Banks began to recieve reports from France about ballloon flights. One of his correspondents was the American ambassador to 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. Some writers have suggested that Gusmão may have been prevented from taking his ideas further by the Inquisition, but this may be a later invention. De Gusmão's plans for his "air-ship" survive but seem hopelessly impractical as they propose little more than a wooden ship filled with the head. tail and wings of a bird and having a sail arranged horizontally such that could supposedly be blown into the air by the action of the wind. It could never have worked although he was made a professor and at least one airport was later named after him.

Franklin had an interest in atmospheric phenomena as well as the natural world in general. He is most famous for his "kite and thunderstorm" experiment although he also did important work on the circulation of ocean currents, particularly the gulf stream. In the very near future, after the Icelandic volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783, and the subsequent harsh European winter of 1784, Franklin would make observations connecting the causal nature of these two separate events. The results in Iceland were catastrophic - an estimated third of the population died in the famine and fluoride poisoning after the fissure eruptions ensued. Approximately 80% of sheep, 50% of cattle and 50% of horses died. The sun was described as "blood coloured". Interest in atmospheric phenomena must have increased as the balloon craze literally took off. Laki was only one factor in a decade of climatic disruption, as Grímsvötn was erupting from 1783 to 1785. The effect of these atmospheric disturbances and the associated climatic changes was a possible factor in leading to the French Revolutionary Wars as they massively increased the price of bread.


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 which was drying it: 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. Banks seems to have initially taken little interest in the new technology. This neglect of the new science prompted Benjamin Franklin to write to Banks:

  • "I am sorry this Experiment is totally neglected in England where mechanic Genius is so strong. It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied."

The Montgolfier brothers had little scientific appreciation of how their balloon actually worked. They believed that it rose because it was filled with smoke, and smoke rose, so a smoky fire was needed. Wool, straw and old shoes were used to try and make the densest smoke possible. It was only until later that it was realised that it was the heat that was important, not the smoke.

Manned Flight

The first aeronauts were not human but a sheep, a duck and and a rooster. The balloon went up on the 19th September 1783 and stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground, but the passengers survived the flight with the duck suffering a broken leg when the sheep kicked it. The later fate of these edible passengers is unknown.

On September 19th, 1783, the first crewed hot air balloon flew, with a sheep a duck and a rooster. This illustration is probably not accurate.

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 original plans, apparently suggested by the Frech king, were to send up a pair of condemned convicts with the promise of a reprieve if they survived, but it was considered inappropriate that the first aeronauts should be criminals. 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 latest 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.

In France, ballooning was certainly the province of the scientists - not only did the French scientific academy actively support balloning with finance but they also sought to control it. Largely this was due to safety concerns. Many flights ended in failure, and the enormous crowds, disappointed in their excitement, often became hostile and destroyed the failed balloon, often injuring the would-be aeronauts. Hot-air balloons were also seen as a fire hazard and were outlawed in Lyon. In Paris, experiments by the public were discouraged and eventually officially forbidden unless one had permission from the authorities. In England, by contrast, the authorities did not seek to control ballooning.

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.

The first hor air ascents were incredibly perilous. The balloon envelope was made of paper or some other material which was capable of catching fire. As well as filling the balloon be ranging it over a fire it was common to carry a fire aloft in the "throat" of the balloon to maintain hot air. This could cause the envelope to catch light and an important piece of kit for these first balloonists was a stick with a wet sponge on the end to put out fires. These first hot aor balloons were frequently ruined after a single and relatively short flight.

Early British Balloonists

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

James Tytler (17 December 1745 – 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)". A typical entry reads:

  • "Miss Sutherland, Back of Bell’s Wynd: This Lady is an old veteran in the service, about 30 years of age, middle sized, black hair and complexion and very good teeth, but not altogether good-natured. She is a firm votary to the wanton Goddess, and would willingly play morning, noon, and night. As a friend, we will give a caution to this Lady, as she has a habit to make free with a gentleman’s pocket, especially when he is in liquor."

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. The fact that he was able to raise the money was remarkable, given that Tytler was well-known to be almost permanently in debt. 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, and shortly thereafter he fled. He was outlawed in absentia by the Scottish High Court because of political dissent (he called for a Republican state to replace the monarchy) 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."
On August 27, 1783, the first unmanned hydrogen balloon was launched and upon landing was destroyed by terrified peasants.

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. In his book Cavallo gives a history of the ascents made up through the beginning of 1785, including the first balloon launched in England by Zambeccari and the first aerial voyage in England by Lunardi. He hypothesizes about the possible reasons that in England, "where the improvements of arts and sciences find their nursery, and many their birth, no aerostatic machine was seen before the month of November 1783", although he concedes that "it often happens in a nation, that a sort of stupor prevents even the most necessary and easy exertions, in particular cases, for which omission, a short time after, no person can assign any plausible reason".

Although Cavallo had tried to find a hydrogen-tight ballooni 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. The balloon flew northwards for 45 minutes, pursued by chasers on horseback, and landed 21 kilometres away in the village of Gonesse, where the reportedly terrified local peasants attacked it with pitchforks and knives, and destroyed it. 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. With the benefit of hindsight some historians have concluded that Charles was the more important balloon pioneer than the Montgolfiers.

Charles first unmanned flight (27th August 1783) was done before enormous crowds. It was filled with hydrogen that had been made by pouring nearly a quarter of a tonne of sulphuric acid onto a half a tonne of scrap iron. This was shortly before the duck, rooster and sheep took flight.

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 woman 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.

The early balloonists became the first celebrities, being widely known some years before Nelson and Byron. Robert Burns mentioned a "Lunardi" bonnet, named after the Italian aeronaut, in his poem, "To A Louse". Given that he was writing in Scottish dialect to a largely Scottish audience, this shows how widely balloons and aeronauts were talked about. The line, "But Miss's fine Lunardi! Fye!", gives a literary effect that would not have been possible if balloons weren’t at the centre of national conversation. The growth of celebrity culture has been associated with the growth of the mass media which allowed persons other than those in the established heirarchy to be catapulted to fame.

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. Baldwin 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.

2. Baldwin:

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"

To fund his experiments, subscriptions were opened by Baldwin at the Whitefriars bank of Robert Hesketh in Chester (still called "Bank House") 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 exactly 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.

What is evidently clear from Baldwins experiments, his correspondence and his attempts to raise funds is that he is no "Mere Adventurer".


The balloon became a symbol of speculation and of promise followed by a bubble burst and a sudden fall.

The brief "Balloon Craze", largely between 1783 and 1786, seems like collective insanity today. The first hot-air balloons drew huge crowds, inspiring onlookers to cry, laugh, even faint. People ran and shouted in the streets. Some were so disturbed they got sick and vomited. 400,000 spectators — more than half the population of Paris at the time — watched the ascension of the first hydrogen balloon. The restless audience would have rioted in the event of failure, but success, too, caused mayhem. People scrambled up walls, trees, and poles to get a better look at the candy-striped globe soaring in the distance. On such occasions, the rules of decorum, like the laws of nature, seemed no longer to apply. The balloon craze sparked a fashion craze, too. Women wore balloon-shaped hats and bonnets and dresses, along with balloon-emblazoned fans, purses, and umbrellas. Men had balloon-themed waistcoats and pantaloons. Almost everything with a flat surface was decorated with the image of a colorful balloon: chairs, desks, bowls, plates, napkins, tables, clocks, couches, bureaus. In the air or on the ground, ballooning was in vogue.

On the 6 September 1862 Glaisher and his professional pilot Henry Coxwell, rose through the 30,000 feet barrier and while still taking meticulous instrumental readings, began to pass out from lack of oxygen. Baldwin could not have reached his claimed altitude of 7 miles.

One of the first plays to feature a balloon was the clever farce "A Mogul Tale" (1784) (aka "The descent of the balloon") by English playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. This starts with the descent of a balloon bearing working-class Wapping cobbler Johnny, his wife Fanny and a rather dotty quack doctor which has blown off course and arrived in India. India, medical quackery and balloons were topical, as Pitt's East India Act was setting out a model of colonial rule that would establish the new eastern British Empire to replace the lost American one. Their misadvantures include the Mogul attempting to ravish Fanny, the doctor pretending to be the English ambassador and a drunken Johnny pretending to be the Pope. It had a good run at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket in July and August 1784 and remained a stock piece in the summer Haymarket repertory long after the balloon rage was over. The balloon is used as a plot-device to transport the characters into a "new world", no doubt with the use of a spectacular stage effect as the balloon was lowered into view. At the same time the balloon was being used as a metaphor for the potential failure of stock markets as "bubbles".

From the start there were skeptics, especially in England, where many viewed ballooning as a French frivolity. Horace Walpole, author of the first gothic novel, dubbed the phenomenon "Balloonomania" and complained, "All our views are directed to the air. Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody." If it wasn’t foolish, he opined, it was potentially destructive, a new technology for aerial warfare: "I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and the idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science."

After their industrial failure, balloons remained a fixture of literature. On the page, they express the promise of being unbound, set free: buoyant with joyful weightlessness but liable to be blown anywhere. In the second volume of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, published in 1786, the mischievous Baron uses a balloon to lift up castles and place them elsewhere while the inhabitants sleep.

Baldwin appears not to have enjoyed anything of the celebrity of other balloonists. There are several possible reasons for this: he made no further ascents and was far less a flamboyant character than Lunardi. The balloon craze was fading, and the fickle interest of the masses moved on to other subjects.

Lunardi In Liverpool

A caricature of Lunardi from 5th September 1785.

Italian aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi made several flights across the country in front of large crowds – the Prince of Wales was among 200,000 people who watched him take off from the Artillery Ground in London on 15th September 1784. On 29th June 1785 Lunardi made another flight from London, landing near Harrow where a farmer was angered by the damage caused to his crops.

He then headed north to Liverpool, where his scheduled take-off on the morning of 20th July had to be postponed due to rain. In the afternoon the sky cleared and Lunardi gave noticed that he intended to try again at 5pm, leading to excited crowds gathering in the north of the town. Due to difficulties preparing the balloon the crowds grew impatient and it wasn’t until 6pm that a gun was discharged to signal that the flight was ready to begin. Lunardi took off from the North Fort, which was situated between where Canada and Huskisson Docks are now. As he flew over Princes Dock, the crowds clapped and cheered and according to the following day’s Williamson’s Advertiser he "gracefully waved his hat and saluted the spectators". He then disappeared into a cloud for a few minutes before reappearing and heading in a northerly direction. He remained in the air for 55 minutes, prolonging the flight by disposing of his hat, waistcoat and shirt to save weight. Suffering from the cold due to having discarded these clothes, he eventually landed in a field in Simonswood, Kirkby. Williamson’s Advertiser reported that his clothes were recovered and that Lunardi was "happy in having fulfilled his engagement with the ladies and gentlemen of Liverpool".

He made another flight from Liverpool on 9th August {initially intended for the 2nd), this time heading in a southerly direction and landing near Tarporley. Lunardi's own description of this flight survives. His take-off was a somewhat chaotic affair, with some trying to restrain him from ascending which caused slight damage to his balloon and requiring Lunardi to threaten them with his sword. His ascent was rapid as in the confusion he had omitted to load ballast. On reaching a stable altitude he cast out a number of bottles containing "A CARD FROM the SKIES" which proposed a subscription be raised to fund a flight from Liverpool to the Isle of Man and found himself apparently becalmed over the Mersey with rapidly moving clouds below him. After a while gas escaping due to the damage to the balloon brought him down into a strong wind. To rise again he cut off a part of the neck of the balloon and trew it out together with a brass trumpet. His landing at Tarporley involved his being dragged a considerable distance and striking the chimney of a house in Tiverton which was pulled down by the impact. He finally came to a halt about halfway between Beeston Castle and Tarporley writing later that "my Back was much hurt and my Limbs sadly Bruised". He dined in Tarporley and the following day set out for Chester. In Chester he was entertained by Major Barnston, Mr Baptist and Mr French, who gave him a tour of the city. It was apparently during this unplanned visit to Chester that a subscription was opened to finance a flight from Chester.

A caricature of Lunardi published on 5th September 1785 depicts Lunardi, slim and handsome, as he walks diagonally towards the spectator from the right, supported on a staff, his left hand held out as if begging. On his back is his collapsed balloon, a large bundle from which project a net and two oars or propellers. His dress is fashionable but ragged. In the background are trees and a church. Beneath the title of "Aerostation out at elbows or the itinerant aeronaut" is etched:

  • "Behold an Hero comely tall and fair! His only Food Phlogisticated Air! Now on the Wings of Mighty Winds he rides! Now torn thro' Hedges! - Dash'd in Oceans tides! Now drooping roams about from Town to Town Collecting Pence t' inflate his poor Balloon; Pity the Wight and something to him give, To purchase Gas to keep his Frame alive."

Lunardi In Chester

In September 1785, when Lunardi brought his "Flying Circus" to Chester, he took rooms at the "White Lion" in Northgate Street. 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.

Just how Lunardi managed to burn himself with acid is not clear, but in his later writings Balwin mentions that acid could find its way into the balloon and later shower down on the unfortunate passenger. He took careful steps to ensure that this did not happen to himself refering to this unfortunate involuntary acid bath having occurred to a previous passenger of the same balloon.

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."

The "servant" was actually George Biggin, another early balloonist. Biggin had been in the same balloon aa Laetitia Sage when she became the first female balloonist on June 29th, 1785. Biggin was of a scientific turn of mind and invented a coffee-pot sold as a "Coffee Biggins". Some further information on him can be found here. He can hardly be considered a "servant".

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. This lack of accurate reporting seems characteristic of the times. However in Chester there may have been a further factor. The Chester Chronicle had only been rescued from near failure in 1783 by John Fletcher. Following the election of 1784 Fletcher got into difficulties with the Corporation and on 19th November, 1785 was sent to jail for six months for a supposed libel. It is possible that when Lunardi arrived in Chester a few weeks earlier, things were already somewhat chaotic at the newspaper offices.

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."
Vincenzo Lunardi (1754-1806).

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. It is notable that Baldwin describes his smaller balloon as a "pilot", as this indicates that he was aware that this could give him an indication of the variation in wind-direction at differing altitudes, something which would give him some limited control over the direction that his flight would take. During the early part of the flight he appears to have been blown in the direction of the sea, but managed to rise into an air-stream flowing inland.

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. He describes his lift-off in dramatic terms:

  • "A small crowd are gathered as the balloon is released amid tears of Delight and Apprehension in the face of a Fellow Mortal separated in a moment from the Earth, and rushing to the Skies.."

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)

Baldwin is careful to note down small details:

  • "..He tried his Voice, and shouted for Joy. His Voice was unknown to himself, shrill and feeble. There was no echo."

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.

As noted above, one of the early problems with balloons was that they were at the mercy of the wind. However this does not mean that they cannot be directed at all. The wind map blow in different directions at different altitudes, and his is particularly true near to the coast, where uneaven heating of the sea and the land can cause an onshore or an offshore sea breeze. Changes in the altitude of a balloon can be accomplished either by dropping ballast or venting gas. This process is made more complicated by the tendency of the gas in the balloon to change its volume with changes in temperature or pressure, including whether the balloon is in sunlight or the shadow of clouds. Baldwin had some understanding of this as one of the things he took up with him were a series of partly inflated "bladders" which would change size as the pressure changed. However, controlling the altitude of a balloon is not a simple process, as a balloon can overshoot a desired altitude and begin to vent gas or even burst. Control of the altitude of a balloon thus needs considerable skill or the aeronaut will find they are helpless if being blown out to sea. It appears that Baldwin was well aware of many of these factors (if having no actual practical experience). This again points to his being somewhat better informed than a "mere adventurer".

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.

John Fletcher's house in Chester has a viewing coupola on the roof.

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."). Baldwin's navigation leaves a little to be desired as his maps are only partly accurate. he gives his first landing place as Belleair, near Kingsley, but his location for Belleair on his maps appears to be wildly out. The book was published by John Fletcher, editor of the Chronicle, who by that time was out of prison. Fletcher himself seems to have had a modest interest in "elevated" viewpoints, as his house in Chester has a coupola on the rooftop to provide views of Wales.

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:

Baldwin's landing at Belleair Farm.
  • "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. However there is the evidence from letters to Biggin that French was instrumental in bringing Lunardi to Chester - perhaps he was interested in the military uses of balloons. French appears to have left no personal record of his flight and does not appear to have been in any way connected with the science of ballooning, and so his flight, made alone and without even a theoretical knowledge of balloon navigation seems all the more remarkable. Some "legends" may have grown up around French's flight, one being that he landed on the parade ground of the Militia in Macclesfield, which would be a remarkable feat of balloon navigation. The Militia Barracks were built 1858/9, and the presence or absence of an earlier parade ground in 1785 requires further research.

The next flight from Chester after Baldwin 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 recorded by Hemingway in his book written at that time, although there is no mention of any balloon exploits in Hemingway.


Just a few days after Baldwin's flight "The Times" of 15 September 1785 declared "the rage for ballooning" to be "the folly of the age" and urged that "some restriction should be laid on the madness of their frequent trips into the air, without one single good purpose being produced". It is unclear what provoked this response, other than possibly that it was one year exactly after Lunardi's first flight in England. The last fatal accident had been on 15th June 1785, and had also been the first, when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier crashed during attempt to cross the English Channel in an experimental de-Roziere hybrid hydrogen-hot-air balloon - it is believed that the heat source for the hot-air part of the ballloon ignited the hydrogen. There had been a few "frivilous" flights and also some scientific ones, but why The Times should so suddenly turn against balloons just after Baldwin's flight is something of a mystery. It may even have influenced Balwin to simply write his book and give up on further balloon experiments.

Taking the events at Chester in the round, it appears that there were four ascents in all during August/September 1785. These were by Biggin, Lunardi, French and finally Baldwin.

3: Baldwin and Science

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

Other than his balloon explots 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 Hall from his father, but he was evidently living there as he is listed as a book subscriber living at that address. According to Ormerod, he sold the estate in 1800 (although he may have already moved to St Helens by that time). While it has been stated in one source 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'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 and thermodynamics as understood at the time, 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). The footnotes in his book indicate that he was remarkably well-read on scientific matters as he refers to many other writers who would have had a quite limited circulation and to some who wrote only in French.

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 possibly 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 for his subscribers 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" as illustrated in an early book on Ballooning.

Some of Baldwin's scientific speculations are based on the rather limited knowledge of his times. For example, the then-current theory of heat involved a mysterious substance known as Phlogiston, but his work indicates that he was highly observant and noticed and noted many small facts which others would have overlooked. Some examples are given below. Some of his experiments were defeated by forces beyond his control, which he notes with dry humour - his attempts to drop messages and samples in bottles being thwarted, as he speculated, by "peasants believing that they might find liquor".

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 glory was described at some length by Gaston Tissandier in 1873 and illustrated in his book "Histoire de mes Ascensions".

One does not need to ascend in a balloon to see this feature, which can sometimes be seen from the summit of mountains if the sun is low in the sky, when the shadow of a climber can be cast onto the clouds. As the sun is behind the climber, any light reflected back seems to come from where the shadow is being cast. Unfortunately, the sun is usually low in the sky just before it sets, so the "glory" was often considered an evil omen. The phenomenon can also be seen when looking out of an aircarft window at the shadow of the aircraft on clouds below.

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.

Today the effect is familiar to anyone who has ever used an elevator, but in Baldwin's day the feeling of accelleration when rising into the air would have been outside of common experience, but it is still recorded by the dilligent Baldwin. Other elements of his witing show the limits of knowledge at the time. He speculates on how high a balloon could rise with a passenger and although he is aware that pressure drops with altitude, he estimates the altitude at which a man could still breathe very badly. Notwithstanding this, he does use (or tries to use) his barometer as a altimeter - a very early example of "instrument flying".

Baldwin and Steamboats

Baldwin (after he moved to Prescot, Lancashire) appears to have 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:

  • "So far as memory serves me, (after a lapse of 39 years,) the following is a description of this wonderful discovery ; but having made no memorandums of the circumstance at the time, and I may say, being then young, and to a certain extent, like the rest of my friends, incredulous. I never anticipated what is almost to every one in the present day so common. The vessel had on her an engine on the old atmospheric principle, was worked with a beam, connecting-rod, double crank, in an horizontal line, and with seven paddles on each side, which propelled her at the rate of about two miles an hour. John Smith was a rude, uncultivated, and self-taught mechanic, and was supported with money by a Mr. Baldwin, at that time of St. Helen's; and was the first aeronaut who ever ascended in a balloon, either in this or the adjoining counties. Perhaps I may observe that the vessel or boat was purchased at Liverpool, and on Smith's informing the parties from whom he bought it what his intentions were, he was treated as some insane person ; he was laughed at by one, insulted by others, and pitied generally; but having money with him, he was allowed to purchase her. So strong were the convictions of this self-taught mechanic as to the general utility of steam and the ultimate success of steam-boats, that on being questioned and laughed at by a merchant at the time the purchase was made, he replied, "Those may laugh who will, but my opinion is, before twenty years are over, you will see this, river, (Mersey) covered with SMOKE." - Liverpool Chronicle.

Baldwin was not, as the quote states, the first to ascend in a balloon in the counties mentioned - French and Lunardi and/or his servant had been up before. Further information on his involvement with steam propulsion can be found in "THE EARLY STEAM ENGINE ON MERSEYSIDE" BY J. R. HARRIS, M.A., PH.D (read 18 December 1952 to the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire).

Baldwin and Musical Notation

Almost the same tune in conventional 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:

  • "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")

Baldwin's Ariel View

Until the late eighteenth century, the predominant mode of landscape representation was the bird’s-eye view. This type of image offered the onlooker a high viewpoint outside the subject depicted within the frame of representation, whether a city, a coastline, or a pastoral scene. The aim to show as much as possible outweighed the concern for true perspective and straight sightlines. Robert Harbison captured the dynamic of the bird’s-eye view when he commented, of Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1648 “Long View” of London:

  • "This is not exactly London as anyone experiences it, but London laid out neatly in the mind’s eye, where one can enumerate its features and remind oneself of many separate things at once".

Hollar used similar techniques for his map of Chester. The Buck Brothers (1728) would provide a view of Chester seen from an elevated viewpoint south of the River Dee. One tiny detail often missed in the Buck Brother's illustration is the veiwing platform atop the Exchange Building in Northgate Street. Celia Fiennes describes a visit to it in 1698. As the Exchange burned down only in 1862 Baldwin would have had the opportunity to view Chester from that same viewpoint.

The South West Prospect of the City of Chester 1728 - for some reason this shows the wall from the Water Tower to the Old Dee Bridge zig-zagging about.

Baldwin faced a problem as to how to depict what he had seen from altitude. Authors of balloon accounts struggled for analogies to describe their experience. "I can find no simile to convey an idea of it", wrote Vincent Lunardi of his elevated view of London. Thomas Baldwin was never lost for words, but flitted through analogies — fairyland, Lilliput, a table-top model of Paris, an “elegant Turkey-Carpet” — the only one bearing repetition being that of a “coloured Map”. Baldwin's solution was a circular view which came with instructions as to how it should be viewed - through a paper tube. This kind of view had not been invented by Baldwin. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure and Marc-Théodore Bourrit collaborated on a panoramic perspective from the summit of the Buet. Their image, published in 1779 represented the summit position from the viewpoint of a living eye above the earth, but was actually drawn from grounf-based survey data. Saussure explains in the introduction to his "Voyages in the Alps" that he first had the idea of this "panoramic" view in 1776, as otherwise it would not be possible for him to "convey the vaguest notion of what I had seen". In the mid-19th century, panoramic paintings and models became a very popular way to represent landscapes, topographic views and historical events.

Audiences of European panoramas were thrilled by the aspect of illusion, immersed in a winding 360 degree panorama and given the impression of standing in a new environment. The panorama was a 360-degree visual medium patented under the title Apparatus for Exhibiting Pictures by the artist Robert Barker in 1787, just two years after Baldwin's flight. The earliest that the word "panorama" appeared in print was on June 11, 1791 in the British newspaper The Morning Chronicle, referring to this visual spectacle. Barker created a painting, shown on a cylindrical surface and viewed from the inside, giving viewers a vantage point encompassing the entire circle of the horizon, rendering the original scene with high fidelity. The inaugural exhibition, a "View of Edinburgh", was first shown in that city in 1788, then transported to London in 1789. By 1793, Barker had built "The Panorama" rotunda at the center of London's entertainment district in Leicester Square, where it remained attracting visitors for 70 years, then closing in 1863. The building is still there, but is now a church. Though the balloon was five years older than the panorama, far fewer people directly experienced balloon travel than the tens of thousands who visited a panorama. Before 1836, a total of 313 people had ascended in a balloon in England by one contemporary compiler’s reckoning; in contrast, as an example, the Colosseum’s Panorama of London received more than that number in a single day during its 1829 season.

Baldwin would have been a significant influence on McGahey, who illustrated Chester in his famous "Balloon View" published in 1853/5 and reproduced on the mainpage of this site. Some have suggested that McGahey actually made the preparatory sketches for his view from a tethered balloon, but there is no record that he ever actually made a flight.

4: "Professor Baldwin" (and others)

Until relatively recently Baldwin was either forgotten or labelled as a "mere adventurer". Even a fairly cursory examinaion of his book shows that he had a relatively serious approach to the new aeronautical science and illustrates his familiarity with the other early writers on ballooning. Further investigation would soon reveal his correspindence with Pennant and his early attempts to raise money for a balloon. His later involvement with science and technology should a broad eange of interests. The fact that Baldwin only made a single ascent could be taken to show he was little more than an adventurer, but early ballooning was not particularly safe, and Baldwin may well have considered that one flight was enough. One further possible 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;
Aug - Lunardi ascends from Liverpool and landing in Tarporley visits Chester;
Sep - French and Baldwin ascend at Chester;
  • 1786:
??? - John Fletcher of Chester publishes Baldwin's Airopaidia

Sources & links

Early Texts On Ballooning

Modern Books



Related Material