May 12, 2011
When Jules Verne’s novel Five Weeks in a Balloon: or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen was translated into English in 1869, it appeared with this publisher’s note: “So far as the geography, the inhabitants, the animals, and the features of the countries the travellers pass over are described, [the book] is entirely accurate…. The mode of locomotion is, of course, purely imaginary…” (The Smithsonian Institution Libraries owns many early editions of Verne’s works; see a lovely on-line exhibition here.)
Verne may have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 New York Sun newspaper article (which came to be known as “The Balloon-Hoax”) caused such a stir that the paper had to print a retraction.
Poe’s story—entirely fictional but presented as a straightforward newspaper article—informed readers of a three-day Atlantic Ocean crossing by balloon. (Notice that Poe’s and Verne’s balloons are both named Victoria.) Poe wrote that “The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon; and this too without difficulty—without any great apparent danger—with thorough control of the machine—and in the inconceivably brief period of seventy-five hours from shore to shore!” Supposedly, the details of the journey were “copied verbatim from the joint diaries of Mr. Monck Mason and Mr. Harrison Ainsworth,” two of the eight passengers aboard. (“Monck Mason” was based upon real-life aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason; “Harrison Ainsworth” was novelist William Harrison Ainsworth.)
The first aviators to actually cross the Atlantic were the pilots and crew of the NC-4 flying boat, which (along with the NC-1 and NC-3) left New York on May 8, 1919, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27, 1919. Their journey was eclipsed in June 1919, when British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first direct nonstop flight across the Atlantic, flying a Vickers Vimy bomber. The first lighter-than-air crossing was made by the R34 rigid airship, commanded by Major George Herbert Scott, which left Britain on July 2, 1919, and arrived on Long Island, New York on July 6.
Five Weeks in a Balloon was made into a movie (starring Red Buttons, pop singer Fabian, Barbara Eden, and Peter Lorre) in 1962. At one point, as the balloon is about to land in the jungle, Sir Henry Vining exclaims, “It’s a forest full of trees!”
Glad we’ve got a genius on board.
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