Vicenzo Lunardi was a pioneering Italian aeronaut, born in Lucca. His family were of minor Neapolitan nobility, and his father had married late in life. Vicenzo was one of three children. He travelled in France in his early years before being called home, where he was put into the diplomatic service.
Vincenzo Lunardi had come to England as Secretary to Prince Caramanico, the Neapolitan Ambassador.
There was a flying craze in France and Scotland with James Tytler, Scotland's first aeronaut and the first Briton to fly, but even so and after a year since the invention of the balloon, the English were still skeptical, and so George Biggin and 'Vincent' Lunardi, "The Daredevil Aeronaut", together decided to demonstrate a hydrogen balloon flight at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company in London on 15 September 1784. His balloon was later exhibited at the Pantheon in Oxford Street.
However, because the 200,000 strong crowd (which included eminent statesmen and the Prince of Wales) had grown very impatient, the young Italian had to take off without his friend Biggin, and with a bag that was not completely inflated, but he was accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. The flight from the Artillery Ground travelled in a northerly direction towards Hertfordshire, with Lunardi making a stop in Welham Green, where the cat was set free as it seemed airsick, before eventually bringing the balloon to rest in Standon Green End. The road junction in Welham Green near to the site Lunardi made his first stop is called Balloon Corner to this day to commemorate the landing.
The 24 mile flight brought Lunardi fame and began the ballooning fad that inspired fashions of the day—Lunardi skirts were decorated with balloon styles, and in Scotland, the Lunardi Bonnet was named after him (balloon-shaped and standing some 600 mm tall), and is even mentioned by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns (1759–96), in his poem 'To a Louse', written about a young woman called Jenny, who had a louse scampering in her Lunardi bonnet, "But Miss's fine Lunardi, fye".
Doubt about the experiment still remained in England, however, at least in some circles. Samuel Johnson, in a letter to Richard Brocklesby (September 29, 1784), dismissed ballooning as "a 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.
His next flight was made nearly a year later on 29 June 1785 and left from St George's Fields on the south side of the Thames. Lunardi and Biggin, and two invitees, Letitia Ann Sage and Colonel Hastings were supposed to make the flight, but the balloon wouldn't take off because of the weight. Lunardi and Hastings stepped down, and the balloon took off with Biggin and Mrs. Sage, making her the first English female in flight. 90 minutes later, they landed near Harrow, where the two aeronauts had to be rescued by a group of boys from Harrow School from the angry farmer whose crops were damaged.
Lunardi then made flights in Liverpool on 20 July and 9 August that year before moving onto Glasgow and Edinburgh. In October 1785, a large and excited crowd filled the grounds of George Heriot's School in Edinburgh to see Lunardi's first Scottish hydrogen-filled balloon take off. The 46 mile flight over the Firth of Forth ended at Coaltown of Callange in the parish of Ceres, Fife. There is today a commemorative plaque nearby. At the time, The Scots Magazine reported:
'The beauty and grandeur of the spectacle could only be exceeded by the cool, intrepid manner in which the adventurer conducted himself; and indeed he seemed infinitely more at ease than the greater part of his spectators.'
The Glasgow Mercury newspaper ran adverts the following month announcing Lunardi's intention to 'gratify the curiosity of the public of Glasgow, by ascending in his Grand Air Balloon from a conspicuous place in the city'.
Vincenzo made five flights in Scotland in his Grand Air Balloon—which was made of 140m² of green, pink and yellow silk, and which was exhibited, 'suspended in its floating state' in the choir of St. Mungo's Cathedral in Glasgow for the admission charge of one shilling.
The weather was fine at about 14:00 on 23 November 1785 when The Daredevil Aeronaut 'ascended into the atmosphere with majestic grandeur, to the astonishment and admiration of the spectators' from St. Andrew's Square in Glasgow. The two-hour flight covered 110 miles, and passed over Hamilton and Lanark before landing at the feet of 'trembling shepherds' in Hawick near the border with England.
A couple of weeks later, in early December, a local 'character' called Lothian Tam managed to get entangled in the ropes and as the balloon ascended—again from St. Andrew's Square in Glasgow, Tam was lifted 6 metres before being cut loose and falling—with apparently no serious injury. The weather was worse on this flight—which had to end after just 20 minutes, with the Grand Balloon landing in Campsie Glen in Milton of Campsie—just over 10 miles from Glasgow. His landing, on 5 December 1785, is commemorated by a small plaque in the village.
However, the next flight on 20 December 1785, was a disaster, though he survived. Seventy minutes after the ascent from the grounds of Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh, Lunardi was forced down in the sea. He spent a long time in the North Sea until rescued by a passing fishing boat which docked at North Berwick. The diary of the Rev John Mill from Shetland states:
'A French man called Lunardi fled over the Firth of Forth in a Balloon, and lighted in Ceres parish, not far from Cupar, in Fife; and O! how much are the thoughtless multitude set on these and like foolish vanities to the neglect of the one thing needful. Afterwards, 'tis said, when soaring upwards in the foresaid machine, he was driven by the wind down the Firth of Forth, and tumbled down into the sea near the little Isle of May, where he had perished had not a boat been near who saved him and his machine.'
A short time later, in 1786, Lunardi published 'An Account of five Aerial Voyages in Scotland' in a series of letters to his guardian, Gherardo Campagni.
What was supposed to be his 12th launch at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1786 ended in a casualty, when Lunardi spilled vitriol on the ground. Assistants restraining the already buoyant balloon, fled from the place which caused it to take off. One of them, the son of Mr. Heron, under-sheriff of Northumberland, had a rope twisted around his hand and could not disengage himself in time. He was drawn up in the air. Eventually, he fell to the ground and died a while later from internal injuries.
The critical responses following this death made Lunardi leave Great Britain, and he continued to make ascents in Italy, Spain and Portugal. He made an ascent by balloon near Mt. Vesuvius in September 1789. He also made the first successful ascent by balloon in Sicily in July 1790. It lasted two hours.
Lunardi would subsequently also invent a life saving device for shipwrecked people. Called by the inventor his "acquatic machine" it was like a one-man lifeboat with an oar for steering. He successfully tested the machine in 1787.
Lunardi never married. He died in Lisbon, Portugal in 1806.
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- Rumens, Carol, 13 October 2008. "Poem of the Week: To a Louse", Guardian Books Blog, retrieved 5 August 2012.
- James Boswell, Life Of Johnson, Volume 4 (of five volumes), Joshua Reynolds Edition, edited by Henry Morley, London: Routledge, 1885, p. 280
- Georgian London. The Daredevil Aeronaut and Miss Letitia Ann Sage. Url visited on 24 June 2012
- Science Photo Library. Mrs Sage, first English female aeronaut. Url visited on 24 June 2012
- Williamsons Advertiser, 21 July 1785
- "Locals commemorate famous balloon landing" East Dunbartonshire council press release, 2 June 2003
- Boston 1775. "The balloon now rose with great velocity...". Url visited on 24 June 2012
- Fiddlers Green Vincenzo Lunardi's Hydrogen Balloon 1784. Url visited June 24th, 2012
- "National Portrait Gallery - Portrait - NPG D18705; Vincenzo Lunardi". Npg.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-27.
- Leslie Gardiner Lunardi: The Story of Vicenzo Lunardi (Shrewsberry, England: Airlife Publishing, Ltd., 1963, 1984), 192p., illus. ISBN 0-906393-38-8