Friday, September 9, 2011

The Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon

In 1811, The Literary Panorama, The Monthly Magazine and The Annual Register, all told the tale of a disastrous fire at a farm in Oxfordshire:
7 September 1811 - A destructive fire broke out in the rick-yard of Mr. Coulton, a farmer, at East End near Shottlesbrooke, occasioned by the descent of a fire-balloon on a wheat rick...The balloon had been sent up in the neighbourhood of Marlow, nearly 20 miles from where it descended.
I had not heard the term fire-balloon before. A little investigation showed that this was another term for a hot-air balloon, that is, a balloon filled with air warmed by a fire, as opposed to a hydrogen filled balloon. Hydrogen gas became the preferred substance in balloon launch very early in the 1800s. Perhaps it was because of such incidents as that above?

The Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon

The Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon was the brain-child of James Tytler, a Renaissance man or a ne'er do well, depending on your point of view. Mr. Tytler worked in everything from medicine to literature, was an inventor and a poet, did not succeed notably in any of his careers, and was twice bankrupted by his endeavours.

In 1783 he developed a keen interest in the work of the Montgolfier brothers in France. He developed his own fire-balloon--a barrel-shaped envelope 30 feet in diameter and 40 feet high. The air which filled it was heated by a stove as opposed to the open fires which sometimes hung below these balloons on a grating.

His first flight took place on August 27, 1784 from Comely Gardens, Edinburgh. The balloon traveled half a mile and news of it traveled farther! His next ascent, on the 31 of August, was attended by a great host of people. His flight was shorter, but was greeted with acclaim. His subsequent efforts however were failures and, having expended huge sums of money, he soon had to move on to other, more lucrative, projects.

Nevertheless, it appears he was the first person in Great Britain to fly in a balloon, and he was thereafter known as 'Balloon' Tytler. His efforts were overshadowed by the 'Daredevil Aeronaut' Vincenzo Lunardi, who eventually undertook five launches in Scotland. It was soon forgotten that Tytler had flown in his fire-balloon nearly a month before the Italian ascended in his from Moorfields in London.

By the time of the Regency hot-air balloons and hydrogen balloons, if not commonplace, were at least frequent spectacles. A variety of styles and sizes of both balloons and equipages were being developed, distances of flights were lengthening and accidents were all too regular.

If you have not read Georgette Heyer's Frederica, I highly recommend it. A balloon ascension plays an important part in the plot, and her descriptions of the dangers and delights of ballooning are all too realistic. It was a heady time of invention and innovation, and we really shouldn't forget that James Tytler was at the forefront of its development.

'Til next time,


Ferguson, James.  Balloon Tytler. London: Faber and Faber, 1972
Gillon, J. K. James Tytler and the Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon.
Illustration of The Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon from this website, with thanks.

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