Vincenzo Lunardi was only 22 when he came to England as Secretary to Prince Caramanico, the Neapolitan Ambassador. Born in Lucca, Italy, then part of the Kingdom of Naples in 1759, Vicenzo was one of three children. His family were of minor Neapolitan nobility, and his father had married late in life. He travelled in France in his early years before being called home, where he was put into the diplomatic service.
There was a flying craze in France and Scotland with James Tytler, Scotland’s first aeronaut and the first Briton to fly (and, incidentally, an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica), but even so and after a year since the invention of the balloon, the English were still skeptical, and so George Biggin and ‘Vincent’ Lunardi, “The Daredevil Aeronaut”, together decided to demonstrate a hydrogen balloon flight at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company in London on 15 September 1784. His balloon was later exhibited at the Pantheon in Oxford Street.
However, because 200,000 strong crowd (which included eminent statesmen and the Prince of Wales) had grown very impatient, the young Italian had to take-off without his friend Biggin, and with a bag that was not completely inflated, but he was accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. The flight from the Artillery Ground travelled in a northerly direction towards Hertfordshire, with Lunardi making a stop in Welham Green, before eventually bringing the balloon to rest in Standon Green End. The road junction in Welham Green near to the site Lunardi made his first stop is called Balloon Corner to this day to commemorate the landing.
The 24 mile flight brought Lunardi fame and began the British ballooning fad that inspired fashions of the day — Lunardi skirts were decorated with balloon styles, and in Scotland, the Lunardi Bonnet was named after him (balloon-shaped and standing some 600 mm tall), and is even mentioned by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96), in his poem ‘To a Louse’, written about a young woman called Jenny, who had a louse scampering in her Lunardi bonnet, “But Miss’s fine Lunardi, fye”.
In October the following year (in 1785), a large and excited crowd filled the grounds of George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh to see Lunardi’s first Scottish hydrogen-filled balloon take off. The 46 mile flight over the Firth of Forth ended at Coaltown of Callange in the parish of Ceres, Fife. There is today a plaque commemorating this feat of British ballooning nearby. At the time, The Scots Magazine reported:
‘The beauty and grandeur of the spectacle could only be exceeded by the cool, intrepid manner in which the adventurer conducted himself; and indeed he seemed infinitely more at ease than the greater part of his spectators.’
The Glasgow Mercury newspaper ran adverts the following month announcing Lunardi’s intention to ‘gratify the curiosity of the public of Glasgow, by ascending in his Grand Air Balloon from a conspicuous place in the city’.
Vincenzo made five flights in Scotland in his Grand Air Balloon — which was made of 140m² of green, pink and yellow silk, and which was exhibited, ‘suspended in its floating state’ in the choir of St. Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow for the admission charge of one shilling.
The weather was fine at about 14:00 on 23 November 1785 when The Daredevil Aeronaut ‘ascended into the atmosphere with majestic grandeur, to the astonishment and admiration of the spectators’ from St. Andrew’s Square in Glasgow. The two-hour flight covered 110 miles, and passed over Hamilton and Lanark before landing at the feet of ‘trembling shepherds’ in Hawick near the border with England.
A couple of weeks later, in early December, a local ‘character’ called Lothian Tam managed to get entangled in the ropes and as the balloon ascended — again from St. Andrew’s Square in Glasgow, Tam was lifted 6 metres before being cut loose and falling, with apparently no serious injury. The weather was worse on this flight — which had to end after just 20 minutes, with the Grand Balloon landing in Campsie Glen in Milton of Campsie — just over 10 miles from Glasgow. His landing, on 5 December 1785, is commemorated by a small plaque in the village.
However, the next flight on 20 December 1785, was a disaster. Seventy minutes after the ascent from the grounds of Heriot’s Hospital in Edinburgh, Lunardi was forced down in the sea. He spent a long time in the North Sea until rescued by a passing fishing boat which docked at North Berwick. The diary of the Rev John Mill from Shetland states:
‘A French man called Lunardi fled over the Firth of Forth in a Balloon, and lighted in Ceres parish, not far from Cupar, in Fife; and O! how much are the thoughtless multitude set on these and like foolish vanities to the neglect of the one thing needful. Afterwards, ’tis said, when soaring upwards in the foresaid machine, he was driven by the wind down the Firth of Forth, and tumbled down into the sea near the little Isle of May, where he had perished had not a boat been near who saved him and his machine.’
A short time later, (in 1786) Lunardi published An Account of five Aerial Voyages in Scotland in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Gherardo Campagni.
Lunardi would subsequently also invent a life saving device for shipwrecked people. Called by the inventor his “acquatic machine” it was like a one man lifeboat with an oar for steering. He actually successfully tested the machine in 1787.
After his return to the continent Lunardi would make an assent by balloon near Mt. Vesuvius in September 1789. He also made the first successful ascent by balloon in Sicily in July 1790. It lasted two hours.
Lunardi never married. He died in Lisbon, Portugal in 1806.
A more in-depth history of ballooning can be found at, Flights of Fancy:
A short history, or overview, of British ballooning during the Georgian and Regency, eras: together with interesting eye-witness accounts, to which are added numerous woodcuts and descriptions of the various balloons,
can be found at Printsgeorge.com.
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