Doctor Johnson, unwell and soon to die, is visiting his home town, and answering letters from London. The recent flights of a hot air balloon attracted much attention in London, and set Johnson thinking. Around 200 years later I was in Lichfield when a hot air balloon flew over. We called to the old lady next-door but one, who was glad to have seen it. but even in the 1980’s, even in the 2020’s indeed, their course cannot be directed so as that it should serve any purposes of communication, a hot air balloon is simply an amusement. But Asthma is better understood; perhaps the relatively clean air of Lichfield helped Johnson’s breathing.
Lichfield, Sept. 29.
On one day I had three letters about the air-balloon: yours was far the best, and has enabled me to impart to my friends in the country an idea of this species of amusement. In amusement, mere amusement, I am afraid it must end, for I do not find that its course can be directed so as that it should serve any purposes of communication; and it can give no new intelligence of the state of the air at different heights, till they have ascended above the height of mountains, which they seem never likely to do.
I came hither on the 27th. How long I shall stay I have not determined. My dropsy is gone, and my asthma much remitted, but I have felt myself a little declining these two days, or at least to-day; but such vicissitudes must be expected. One day may be worse than another; but this last month is far better than the former; if the next should be as much better than this, I shall run about the town on my own legs.
The fate of the balloon I do not much lament (it had been destroyed by fire): to make new balloons, is to repeat the jest again. We now know a method of mounting into the air, and, I think, are not likely to know more. The vehicles can serve no use till we can guide them; and they can gratify no curiosity till we mount with them to greater heights than we can reach without; till we rise above the tops of the highest mountains, which we have yet not done. We know the state of the air in all its regions, to the top of Teneriffe, and therefore, learn nothing from those who navigate a balloon below the clouds. The first experiment, however, was bold, and deserved applause and reward. But since it has been performed, and its event is known, I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.’
From Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784 by James Boswell.
Photograph by Scott Williams via WIkipedia