Sunday, November 7, 2010

Goethe and Hot Air Balllooning

Wie ein Luftballon hebt sie uns mit dem Ballast, der uns anhängt, in höhere Regionen und läßt die verwirrten Irrgänge der Erde in Vogelperspektive vor uns entwickelt daliegen.

(Like a hot air balloon it raises us, with all the ballast that we carry, into higher regions and allows us, from a bird's-eye perspective, to see the pattern in the confused pathways of the world labyrinth.)

Goethe is writing here, in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, of the power of literature. The reference to hot air balloons, however, is one of the indications that Goethe kept abreast of all that was new in the world of science and technology. Though he never ascended in a balloon, he got the picture, so to speak, of how the earth would look from above. Because of his lifelong geological pursuits, I like to think the image above, of balloons flying over the Cappadocia region of Turkey, would have interested him. It shows lava and white ash mixed with floodwaters to form the hard, sun-baked layer known as tufa. The spectacular geological formations are called "fairy chimneys." On the other hand, maybe Goethe was just as glad not to have such a view of the earth, instead allowing his imagination to do the work.

In any case, he was present in 1784 at several attempts at sending a hot air balloon into the air in Germany, made a year after the first experiments in France by, among others, the Montgolfier brothers and the Roberts brothers. The latter were responsible for the first "manned" flight. (Why are these earlier inventors of flight brother teams? Think the Wright brothers.)

One of the first experimenters in Germany was the chemist Samuel Thomas Soemmerring, one of Goethe's science correspondents. (Goethe occasionally wrote him asking for animal fossils and skeletons.) He visited Soemmerring in Cassel in late 1783 and attended an unsuccessful balloon trial. (Later, Soemmerring got a balloon off the ground.) In 1784, Goethe was present in Weimar when the local apothecary, Wilhelm Sebastian Buchholz, also made an unsuccessful attempt. As Goethe wrote to Knebel: "He torments the air in vain; the balls refuse to rise." The same summer, however, Buchholz was successful, and Goethe wrote down his reminiscence of the occasion many years later in Der Verfasser teilt die Geschichte seiner botanischen Studien mit (The Author Communicates the History of His Botanical Studies):

"At the time that the scientific world was busily occupied with determining the qualities of air, he didn't neglect to bring the newest scientific experiments before our eyes. So it was that he let ascend one of the first montgolfiers from our terrace, to the delight of the instructed and to the speechless astonishment of the otherwise assembled, while the pigeons, in consternation, fled in all directions."

These thoughts on Goethe's experience with ballooning were prompted by a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a book on the history of ballooning: The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820, by Michael R. Lynn. I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy -- none of the New York City libraries has a copy on its shelves -- but the reviewer calls the book an invaluable source for future study. What caught my eye, of course, was the word "sublime" in the title of Lynn's book.

Picture credits: Yoray Liberman/Getty; Xplanes

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