“The title of our introduction to aeronautics may appear ambitious to astronomers, and to those who know that the infinite space we call the heavens is for ever inaccessible to travellers from the earth; but it was not so considered by those who witnessed the ardent enthusiasm evoked at the ascension of the first balloon. No discovery, in the whole range of history, has elicited an equal degree of applause and admiration—never has the genius of man won a triumph which at first blush seemed more glorious. The mathematical and physical sciences had in aeronautics achieved apparently their greatest honours, and inaugurated a new era in the progress of knowledge. After having subjected the earth to their power; after having made the waves of the sea stoop in submission under the keels of their ships; after having caught the lightning of heaven and made it subservient to the ordinary purposes of life, the genius of man undertook to conquer the regions of the air. Imagination, intoxicated with past successes, could descry no limit to human power; the gates of the infinite seemed to be swinging back before man’s advancing step, and the last was believed to be the greatest of his achievements.
In order to comprehend the frenzy of the enthusiasm which the first aeronautic triumphs called forth, it is necessary to recall the appearance of Montgolfier at Versailles, on the 19th of September, 1783, before Louis XVI, or of the earliest aeronauts at the Tuileries. Paris hailed the first of these men with the greatest acclaim, “and then, as now,” says a French writer, “the voice of Paris gave the cue to France, and France to the world!” Nobles and artisans, scientific men and badauds, great and small, were moved with one universal impulse. In the streets the praises of the balloon were sung; in the libraries models of it abounded; and in the salons the one universal topic was the great “machine.” In anticipation, the poet delighted himself with bird’s-eye views of the scenery of strange countries; the prisoner mused on what might be a new way of escape; the physicist visited the laboratory in which the lightning and the meteors were manufactured; the geometrician beheld the plans of cities and the outlines of kingdoms; the general discovered the position of the enemy or rained shells on the besieged town; the police beheld a new mode in which to carry on the secret service; Hope heralded a new conquest from the domain of nature, and the historian registered a new chapter in the annals of human knowledge.”