In the 1800s, crowds flocked to watch balloon ascensions for many of the same reasons they go to stock car races. You got to see an odd vehicle do amazing things, and there was always a fair chance of witnessing a crash. Recent days have seen the anniversary of the first balloon mail flights while today we observe the first ascension to reach 100,000 feet (1957) and the birth of zillionaire balloon enthusiast Malcolm Forbes (1919).
Octave Chanute, aeronautics pioneer and subject of Simine Short’s acclaimed biography Locomotive to Aeromotive, took inspiration from the balloonists he saw as a young man. As the saying goes, people came from miles around to oggle a man defying gravity to take his place among the birds, the clouds, and—if he was unlucky—the obituary pages. Chanute paid at least two bits for a ticket, too, though unlike the other gawkers, he later made history:
In the mid-1850s, Silas M. Brooks popularized ballooning in Illinois and Iowa. On July 25, 1856, the Peoria Weekly Republican carried the following advertisement: “The citizens of Peoria and surrounding country are respectfully informed that Mr. S. M. Brooks, the great American Aeronaut, who has made more successful voyages throughout the heavens than any other man living, will have the honor of ascending in his Mammoth Balloon, the Hercules, from this city on Thursday, 31 July 1856. Admission 25 cents. Raised seats 50 cents.”
The Illinois Gazette from Lacon, Illinois, reported that Brooks set up a large circus tent, filled with about four thousand paying spectators, and began with a lecture on aeronautics, followed by the balloon being inflated. After releasing the ropes, “away heavenward the great Hercules went. As he rose from the ground, the Professor bade his audience ‘good night’ and majestically ascended.” The balloon landed about four miles to the east, and Brooks brought it back to Peoria. Brilliant fireworks finished the entertainment, with Chanute and other rowing club members most likely part of the enthralled crowd. With balloons the only craft capable of flight in those days, any ballooning event could have triggered Chanute’s interest in aeronautics.