The world's first manned balloon flight took place on Nov. 21, 1783, in Paris. The balloon was blue and gold and 70 ft. (about 20 m) tall. It had no basket. You rode on a kind of circular balcony that hung around the balloon's neck like a collar. This meant that there had to be two passengers, for balance, and they had to stay on opposite sides of the balloon at all times. The two men in question were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a young doctor who was exactly as dashing as he sounds, and the Marquis d'Arlandes, an army major. Their dialogue could not have been scripted better by Judd Apatow.
They couldn't see each other because the balloon was between them, so they had to yell back and forth. As the giant aircraft careened wildly over the roofs of Paris and the two men frantically shoveled straw into the fire that kept it flying, the marquis became more and more hysterical. "We must land now!" he yelled. "We must land now!" Pilâtre stayed icy calm. "Look, d'Arlandes," he said. "Here we are above Paris. There's no possible danger for you. Are you taking this all in?" But the marquis couldn't take it in. When a gust of wind jostled the balcony, he screamed, "What are you doing! Stop dancing!"
Eventually, after 27 minutes aloft, they landed safely. D'Arlandes according to his own account threw himself out onto the grass. Pilâtre just stood there. "We had enough fuel to fly for an hour," he said sadly. The crowd grabbed his green coat and tore it to pieces for souvenirs. He was an instant 18th century rock star.
This anecdote appears in The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (Pantheon; 576 pages), which is the most flat-out fascinating book so far this year. You wouldn't get that from its title, which sounds like a tender coming-of-age novel, nor from its subtitle How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science which sounds like a course you napped through in college. But Holmes' account of experimental science at the end of the 1700s when amateurs could still make major discoveries, when one new data point could overthrow a worldview is beyond riveting. Science was like punk rock: if you had a basement, some free time and some hubris, you could do it.
The book is organized as a series of linked biographical sketches. One of them is of Humphry Davy, a cocky little guy who was born in Cornwall, England, in 1778. He was an apothecary's apprentice who practically frothed with genius and ambition. Over the course of his career, he postulated the carbon cycle, used electricity to isolate sodium and potassium and saved countless lives by inventing a safety lamp for coal miners. He also studied the health benefits of nitrous oxide laughing gas. Oh, to be a fly on the wall while Davy huffed 18th century whippits with Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both close friends. After ingesting 100 (!) quarts (95 liters) of nitrous using a homemade gas chamber, Davy wrote:
I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals, I was indignant at what they said of me and stalked majestically out of the laboratory to inform Dr. Kinglake privately that nothing existed but thoughts.
Davy's not here, man. (Coleridge was less impressed. As an opium addict, he was used to harder stuff.)