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Lighter than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships

 by Tom D. Crouch, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2009, $35.

 Anyone who thinks that the days of lighter-than-air flight are over should pick up Tom Crouch’s latest book, which covers the history of “the invention of the balloon and the great events that opened the air age.” An outstanding historian and writer, he has seasoned his narrative with an excellent selection of colorful illustrations and photographs, producing a significant review of this enduring subject.

Crouch begins with the invention of the vacuum pump in 1640 by Otto von Guericke, mayor of Magdeburg, Germany, followed by the invention of the barometer and thermometer and other instruments. The imaginative work of innovators in many countries culminated in France, when paper manufacturer Pierre Montgolfier’s two sons managed to make the dream of flight a reality. Their experimentation with hot air balloons paid off in 1783 with their first successful balloon flight, carrying aloft a sheep, a rooster and a duck as passengers.

Crouch follows the progress of “balloonamania” as it spread throughout the world over the years, detailing a variety of ballooning firsts, some tragic and others marked with new success. He goes on to trace the use of giant rigid airships by the U.S. Navy—including Akron, Los Angeles and Macon—for reconnaissance, and experiments with “flying aircraft carriers” as well as the extensive employment of blimps in war and peace. Crouch also devotes space to the most recent advances in sport ballooning and the use of balloons for scientific research. Readers may be surprised to learn that super-pressure balloons called “aerobots” have already made flights to Venus. NASA scientists are reportedly considering the potential of using balloons to explore Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Lighter Than Air is a much-needed update of balloon and airship history. It includes a helpful chronology—from 212 BC, when Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy, to 2002, when Steve Fossett made his solo flight around the world. A bonus is Crouch’s selective listing of nonrigid, semirigid and rigid airships. As he notes in his conclusion, “For the world’s oldest flight technology, it seems that there is still no place to go but up.”


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here