On June 15, 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier died when his double balloon, fueled by a combination of smoke and hydrogen, caught fire and fell 5,000 feet to the ground. About a year later, a young man was snagged in one of Lunardi’s ropes, lifted off the ground, and dropped knee-deep into a flower bed, which killed him soon after. Blanchard’s Aerostatic Academy, the first flight school, failed to enroll enough students to continue operating. Everyone realized balloons couldn’t be steered or controlled, despite many attempts with oars, wings, sails, and rudders. The fad receded and didn’t revive until the 19th century—and then only for recreation and entertainment. The balloon’s promise for transit and industry was deflated.
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. To this day, balloons symbolize humor and whimsy; they evoke high spirits, even giddiness—the repudiation of gravity in both senses. 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. Yet balloons don’t just go up, but also come down, often in dangerous and unpredictable ways. They’re just as likely to elicit feelings of doubt and fear as joy and freedom.