Why a Spy Balloon Inspires Such Fear and Fascination

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tags: aviation, Balloons

Alison R. Byerly is president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

German observation balloon launched near the Somme, September 1916



The oddly riveting drama of a Chinese spy balloon drifting slowly across Idaho, Montana, and the continental U.S. prompted a range of reactions, from angry demands for prompt military action to lighthearted memes referencing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Jules Verne, and the Wizard of Oz. It was hard to know how to feel about an object that seemed both ominous and whimsical.

Tweeted comments such as “the Chinese intelligence services must be run by Phileas Fogg” reflect the popular association of air balloons with Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. Known for his futuristic writing, Verne created an iconic image of the nineteenth century by highlighting a technology that once was cutting-edge but now seems charmingly anachronistic.

Verne’s hero tries to win a wager by circumnavigating the globe, relying on a variety of modes of transport including transcontinental railways, steamers, an elephant, and a sail-powered sledge over snow. But readers of the book know that Phileas Fogg never sets foot in a balloon. Nevertheless, cover illustrations for the book often pictured a hot air balloon. Verne had published the bestseller Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) a decade earlier, so illustrators clearly saw an opportunity to capitalize on continued public interest. In America, this association was cemented by the 1957 film of Around the World in 80 Days, featuring David Niven, which added balloon travel to the journey and highlighted it in film publicity.

Many succumbed to the temptation to connect the balloon with The Wizard of Oz, the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum that became the classic 1939 musical film. While this might seem a benign and childish association, it reinforces the aura of chicanery surrounding the Chinese statements about the incident. The supposed Wizard of Oz turns out to be a traveling showman who leaves the Emerald City the same way he came, in a hot air balloon. His exotic and unpredictable mode of travel reinforces his image as a con man who reinvents himself each time he arrives in a new destination. Like the Wizard himself, the spy balloon is not what it claims to be.

The ambiguity of our response to the Chinese spy balloon reflects the fact that from the time of the very first hot air balloon flights in France and England, air balloons combined elements of scientific research, surveillance, and entertainment in ways that still inform our contemporary notions.

When the first hydrogen balloon took off, unmanned, in Paris in August 1793, its appearance in the sky was so terrifying to spectators that when it descended in a field some miles away it was attacked and destroyed by local villagers. Only a few months later, the Roberts brothers, accompanied by scientist Jacques Charles, successfully launched a manned flight from the Tuileries garden that flew 36 kilometers and carried a barometer and thermometer to gather meteorological information. A reported 400,000 people, including Benjamin Franklin, gathered to watch the expedition. This combination of scientific information gathering and popular entertainment would continue to characterize ballooning. Many popular balloonists were scientists or photographers who also became showmen, funding their ascents and supporting themselves through talks and writings about their journeys.

The Chinese government’s claim that its errant balloon was simply gathering weather data follows a long tradition of meteorological study using balloons. In England, one of the most famous meteorological aeronauts was James Glaisher, author of Travels in the Air (1871). A founding member of the Meteorological Society, Glaisher made a number of ascents to gather data about temperature and humidity at various altitudes. His experiences were dramatic enough to have become, somewhat improbably, the subject of a 2019 film, The Aeronauts, based on Richard Holmes’s 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.  The most famous image from Glaisher’s book shows the moment when he lost consciousness due to altitude, nearly bringing his voyage to catastrophe. Most of the book’s illustrations, however, focus on depicting cloud formations, shooting stars, and other meteorological or astronomical phenomena that he observed.

Balloons offered a unique opportunity for surveillance long before airplanes were invented. They were used for military spying by France in the Franco-Austrian War, and by both sides in the U.S. Civil War. Even in civilian contexts, balloons provided an entirely new perspective that could not have been seen before –  panoramic surveys of landscape formations, the layout of cities, and other aspects of topography. Glaisher noted that from his balloon, the scenery appeared flattened, “and the whole country appears like a prodigious map spread out beneath [one’s] feet.” Looking down at London, he can see where the large buildings of the city proper dissolve into the smaller homes of the suburbs, finally becoming the countryside, like a garden outside a home. Henry Mayhew, whose groundbreaking urban study London Labour and the London Poor (1849-50) is remarkable for its geographical specificity, noted in an 1852 account that the “peculiar panoramic effect” of balloon travel allows for unmatched views of the city.  He is able to see London’s constituent parts “like little coloured plaster models of countries”:  its roadways striping the land, the multiple bridges over the Thames, the line of the South-Western Railway cutting across the meadows.

The idea that balloons offer special knowledge and even a kind of mastery of the world was reflected in Charles Dickens’ first book, Sketches by Boz (1836), which has a frontispiece illustration by George Cruikshank depicting two gentlemen, presumably himself and Dickens, ascending in a balloon and looking down on the waving people below. The balloon seems an apt image for the narrative voice of the sketches, an omniscient seer who is able to look down upon and describe the foibles and activities of his fellow citizens.

When balloons were first deployed over two hundred years ago, they offered a revolutionary way to gather information from a distance. Today, with the advent of digital technology, we specialize in gathering information from a distance. The Chinese balloon incident was unsettling because it dramatized that shift. By intruding into our physical airspace, the Chinese balloon provided a visual symbol for the greatest threat of the information age: remote surveillance by an invisible eye. When it comes to protecting our personal privacy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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