Aeronautica 1838

One of the oldest items in our book collection is an 1838 publication of Aeronautica, or, sketches illustrative of the theory and practice of Aerostation: Comprising an enlarged account of the late aerial expedition to Germany by Monck Mason. In this book, Mason recounts a record setting ballooning journey in which he partook with prominent aeronauts Charles Green and Thomas Hollond. The trio flew from London to Weilburg, Germany in approximately eighteen hours.

Image of Monck Mason from a painting by John Hollins.

The text recounting the excursion encompasses the first 98 pages of the book, although Mason spends nearly a third of it musing on ballooning in general, including its history, mechanics, and previous voyages. He reflects on the context of this voyage within world of aeronautics and its significance to the future of humankind. Changes in altitude and direction were meticulously recorded by Hollond during the entirety of the trip. Many specific logistics of the journey are reserved for frankly written footnotes.

1835 portrait of Charles Green by Hilaire Ledru.

The text recounting the excursion encompasses the first 98 pages of the book, although Mason spends nearly a third of it musing on ballooning in general, including its history, mechanics, and previous voyages.  He reflects on the context of this voyage within world of aeronautics and its significance to the future of humankind. Changes in altitude and direction were meticulously recorded by Hollond during the entirety of the trip. Many specific logistics of the journey are reserved for frankly written footnotes.

Cover of the Aeronautica, which is over 180 years old. 

Remarkable detail is given of each aspect of the journey itself: from procurement of the balloon, to its inflation, and descriptions of provisions on the balloon’s car. Mason eloquently wrote of the English countryside and villages as seen from the balloon, dropping letters by parachute into some of the towns as they passed. A bulk of the voyage occurred during the night, when they passed over Belgium. Mason describes navigation by use of the street lamps below to recognize towns; however, they lose sense of direction in the early morning hours before sunrise.Perhaps most exciting in Mason’s account are the astonished reactions of unsuspecting spectators on the ground. The group did not have a specific destination in mind, and instead decided to land when they began to fear they travelled too far east. Their descent was completed when they reached a fairly populated area and there was sufficient clearing in the woods. It was only upon landing did they learn exactly where they were geographically.

The title page of Aeronatuica.

Whether describing theeternal nature of the sea, the dark density of night, or the rise and fall of the balloon traversing mountains, the theme of Mason’s romantic account is man’s triumph over nature. His poignant writing captures the zeitgeist of discovery prominent in early aeronautic exploration.  The remainder – and bulk – of Mason's book includes a history of aeronautics up to the point of their voyage, a list of previous ascents, a list of aeronauts, and further explanation of the mechanics of ballooning. This is one of the first compilations of a list of balloon ascents and aeronauts at that point in history.

The book is interspersed with full page illustrated plates:

Portraits of Hollond, Mason, and Green (facing the title page).

The Great Balloon, From a Sketch by Robert Hollond Esqre (opposite page 29).

Environs of Liège, seen from the balloon at night (after page 52).

The balloon passing over Coblenz (after page 72).

Descent of the balloon in the valley of Elbern (after page 84).

Parachutes of M. Garnerin and Mr. Cocking (after page 230).

The last three images are reproductions of lithographs created based on sketches by the author.

Special to our copy is a note on page 281, within Appendix C- the list of names of previous balloonists. A penciled-in note pertaining to one of the first American aeronautical experiments involving human flight. The entry is that of Mr. James Wilcox, who allegedly flew in Philadelphia on December 28, 1783. The note in our copy states: “This, of course, is untrue. It was a hoax. See my article, “The First Balloon Hoax” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Jos. Jackson. Also see article in American Hist. Register.” This note refers to a 1911 article, published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, disproving this balloon ascent.

Handwritten note, probably from Joseph Jackson.

This book is one of the oldest items in the Museum’s book collection and is in good condition for its age. The book reflects an important part of aerospace history: a time in European history when humanity was in the midst of exploring the skies and examining the possibilities of flight.

A fully digitized version of the book is available through the Smithsonian Libraries.  Some of the images on these page were taken from the Smithsonian's version, with appreciation.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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