Balloons, Dirigibles, and Gliders in History
BY B.J. SEDLOCK
I wasn’t that interested in lighter-than-air travel until I read Frederica, a book by one of my favorite authors, Georgette Heyer, where a character takes an unexpected balloon ride in the 1810s: the heroine’s young brother helping with the launch doesn’t let go of the mooring rope quickly enough, and rises into the air still clinging onto the rope. Perusing these books and websites on lighter-than-air craft and gliders made me realize there’s a lot of story ideas in the field. I hope you find them useful for your research.
This museum in Iowa offers a page providing an overview of ballooning history.
This is an open access journal article by G. Pfotzer from Space Science Reviews in 1972. Coverage begins with the first experiments in 1783.
Writer/editor Charlotte Bailey wrote this UK balloon history page, and although it’s from a .com site, I think it could still be useful to a novelist.
London’s Science Museum’s “collections” page will let you search on “balloons” and retrieve over 400 items to do with balloon history. However, not all of the images showed on my screen, and a friend in the UK said they didn’t display for them either, so the reason for blocking the images wasn’t because I was trying to access them from outside the UK. Of the ones I could view, there are pictures from Lunardi’s historic flights (see book section below), and examples of “balloonomania” plates, cups and snuffboxes.
A reprint in Smithsonian Magazine of an article by historian Jennifer Tucker on early balloons flights, with some interesting pictures.
The American Battlefield Trust runs this site, with this page on balloons in the U.S. Civil War, which has some cool illustrations.
The National Park Service provides this page, associated with a Ulysses S. Grant historic site, on Civil War use of balloons, and Grant’s connection to them.
The Science History Institute’s page reviews the earliest balloon flights and the “balloonomania” craze they inspired, for balloon-themed jewelry, decorative arts, and clothing.
BALLOONS AND GENERAL—BOOKS
LIGHTER-THAN-AIR FLIGHT, ed. by C.V. Glines. Franklin Watts, 1965. [No ISBN]
This volume, by an Air Force officer, is an anthology of excerpts from historical documents on lighter-than-air flight over the centuries. One section is on balloon uses in war, another on airships historically, and the last on airships in the mid-20th century.
FALLING UPWARDS: HOW WE TOOK TO THE AIR, by Richard Holmes. Pantheon, 2013. 9780307379665
Holmes says in the epilogue (p.353) that he did not write a conventional history of ballooning: “In a sense, it is not really about balloons at all. It is about what balloons gave rise to. It is about the spirit of discovery itself…” So don’t consult this book if you want a timeline of ballooning history, but it’s full of wonderful stories of historical balloon adventures, inspiring material for novelists looking for an idea to write about.
BALLOONING, 1782-1972. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972. [no ISBN]
This is a catalog of an exhibit held by the Smithsonian in 1972, before the present National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC was completed, on the history of ballooning. It may be of limited use, as only some of the items in the exhibit are pictured, and all of the pictures are in black and white. But if a researcher sees an item listed in the catalog of interest, they could contact the Smithsonian to ask whether it was available to view digitally. A photo of the 1972 exhibit is available online from the Smithsonian’s archives.
BAGS UP! GREAT BALLOON ADVENTURES, by Kurt R. Stehling. Playboy Press, 1975. [No ISBN]
Part of the book recounts the author’s own balloon adventures, but about half of the content is about historical balloon flights and balloons’ use in war. It has no footnotes, but does offer a one-page bibliography.
THE BALLOON BOOK, by Paul Fillingham. David McKay, 1977. 0679505946
Much of the book is about practicalities of ballooning in the last quarter of the 20th century, such as obtaining a license, radios, weather, etc. But it also includes several chapters on historical accounts of balloons, and material on airships as well, plus a 5-page bibliography.
MAN IN THE CLOUDS: THE STORY OF VINCENZO LUNARDI, by Leslie Gardiner. W&R Chambers, 1963. [No ISBN]
The story of the Italian aeronaut who made early balloon ascents in England and Scotland in the 1780s. His flights were so noteworthy that monuments marking the sites of some of Lunardi’s flights still exist in the UK today.
LIGHTER THAN AIR: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF BALLOONS AND AIRSHIPS, by Tom D. Crouch. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 9780801891274
“This book offers a concise overview of the history of lighter-than-air flight from antiquity to the space age”—introduction. It is lavishly illustrated, and covers eras from Archimedes into the 21st century, and speculates on the future of lighter-than-air flight.
BALLOONS AND AIRSHIPS: A TALE OF LIGHTER THAN AIR AVIATION, by Anthony Burton. Pen & Sword Transport, 2019. 9781526719492
The author served in the RAF, has flown lighter-than-air craft himself, and specializes in writing about transport history and technology. The book begins with some attempts to fly in ancient history, and ends with a chapter on modern ballooning as recreation. It contains no footnotes but has a selected bibliography.
This is an out-of-print government document that has been made available electronically, from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command’s website. It covers the U.S. use of airships in the military in the 20th century.
This page gives an overview of military use of airships in the U.S. Eight photos are included.
OHIO HISTORY CENTRAL (U.S.)
Akron, Ohio was the historical center of U.S. airship production, because of Goodyear and other rubber companies being located there. These pages give brief overviews of airship production in Ohio’s history. Motorists driving on Rt. 224 from Akron into the eastern suburbs today can get an eye-popping view of the gargantuan, still-extant hangers seen in these pages.
THE ZEPPELIN STORY, by W. Robert Nitske. A.S. Barnes/Thomas Yoseloff, 1977. 0498018059
This is the story of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, inventor of rigid airships, and the firm he founded to build them. Zeppelin requested a furlough from the German army during the American Civil War, so that he could serve as an official observer of the U.S. Union Army. He made his first balloon ascent while visiting America, and his adventures, such as visiting the frontier and mingling with Native Americans, would make an interesting historical novel. An appendix lists the fates of the zeppelins built during and after the Count’s lifetime and b&w photos are included.
THE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE AIRSHIP: A HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF RIGID, SEMI-RIGID AND NON-RIGID AIRSHIPS, by Guy Hartcup. Wren, 1975. 0858851938
The subtitle pretty much describes the contents of the book, a straightforward history of airships, with many b&w photos. Extensive footnotes and a bibliography will aid you in further research, and an appendix compares statistics on airships of different European countries, plus those used in the U.S.
GIANTS IN THE SKY: A HISTORY OF THE RIGID AIRSHIP, by Douglas H. Robinson. University of Washington, 1973. 0295952490
“The romance of the rigid airship…is hard to comprehend today for the younger generation which has never seen one”—introduction. The author’s aim is to both pay tribute to airships’ creators and to “convey to a younger generation some of the …awe and majesty which those giant ships of the sky inspired in those who saw them.” It includes an extensive bibliography, and an appendix listing the 161 rigid ships built between 1897 and 1940 and their fates.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE GREAT PASSENGER AIRSHIPS: GRAF ZEPPELIN & HINDENBURG, by Harold G. Dick with Douglas H. Robinson. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. 1560982195
Author Dick was a Goodyear employee who flew on many Hindenburg flights, but luckily was not aboard during its final voyage when it crashed and burned in New Jersey in 1937. So he writes with authority on the era when airships were carrying passengers across the Atlantic, 1934-1938. The book covers his involvement with airships, his visits to Germany in the Nazi era, plus provides maps, photos, and many details about what it was like to fly on passenger airships, such as loading charts listing the various weights of fuel, water, and ballast; a glossary of terms, a crew manual, etc. If you want to place a character in your novel aboard an airship in the 1930s, this has a wealth of detail to help you make the experience authentic.
AIR-RAIDS ON SOUTH-WEST ESSEX IN THE GREAT WAR: LOOKING FOR ZEPPELINS AT LEYTON, by Alan Simpson. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2015. 9781473834125
The title pretty much describes the content: this chronicles the bombing of Leyton, a town in the east of greater London, by German zeppelins during World War I. More than a thousand homes were damaged, and people killed and wounded by the raids. Its photographs and personal accounts of air raid experiences would be valuable to a historical novelist writing about airships’ use in wartime.
GERMAN AIRSHIPS: PARSEVAL-SCHUTTE-LANZ-ZEPPELIN, by Heinz J. Nowarra. Schiffer Publishing, 1990. 0887401996
Published in German as Deutsche Luftschiffe in 1988. This lavishly illustrated English version covers the history of German airships, with photos dating as early as 1872. It includes a brief bibliography and tables of technical data.
MILITARY, NAVAL AND CIVIL AIRSHIPS SINCE 1783: THE HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE DIRGIBILE AIRSHIP IN PEACE AND WAR, by Daniel George Ridley-Kitts. History Press, 2012.
The author served in the RAF in the 1950s and was stationed at the same base in Germany that had served as the headquarters of the German airship service, which sparked his interest in airships; the book’s emphasis is on British ones. It has a bibliography and an appendix with a historical timeline.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers offers this site about gliders during World War II, “America’s first military stealth aircraft.” The site includes memories of one of the few remaining pilots.
This page lets you view a 1952 U.K. film on the sport of gliding.
This page lists gliders in the museum’s collection, and if you click on “read more” on the right, you’ll bring up a picture of that particular glider, with history and specs on the aircraft.
This site map page from NASA’s website on the Wright Brothers has a column on the left where you can view recreated drawings of various gliders from the Wrights’ progression to powered aircraft.
HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S GLIDER FORCES, BY Alan Wood. Patrick Stephens Ltd., 1990. 1852602759
This is about the history of the military uses of gliders in the first half of the 20th century, especially German and British, but with shorter sections on U.S., Russian, Japan, and even briefer pages on other countries’ uses. It offers photographs but no footnotes or bibliography.
SILENT WINGS AT WAR: COMBAT GLIDERS IN WORLD WAR II, by John L. Lowden. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. 1560981210
The author flew gliders during World War II and hopes to “help set the record straight on the magnificent contributions made, against brutal odds, by Allied glider pilots and their passengers…”—preface. He includes personal stories contributed by other pilots like himself, and an impressive set of period photos.
QUEST FOR FLIGHT: JOHN J. MONTGOMERY AND THE DAWN OF AVIATION IN THE WEST, by Craig S. Harwood and Gary B. Fogel. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 9780806142647
The well-known exploits of the Wright Brothers overshadow the early glider flight attempts by Montgomery in California. His first attempts were in the 1880s, before the Wrights, but not well publicized. It wasn’t until decades later in the 20th century that he began to be nationally recognized.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.