One newspaper correspondent, writing in the early 1780s, urged ‘all men to laugh this new folly out of practice as speedily as possible.’ James Sadler, the hero of this charming book, was never likely to follow such grumpy advice. He was something of a pioneer, becoming the first Englishman to mount a successful manned balloon flight, at Oxford in 1784. On that occasion he only managed to travel a few miles but, over the coming decades, he notched up some impressive distances: including 112 miles from Birmingham to Lincolnshire and 237 miles from Dublin to Liverpool.
Mark Davies laments the fact that Sadler has been ‘virtually expunged from memory’ and sets out to show just how ingenious and daring this son of an Oxford pastry chef could be. The financial and technical challenges of taking flight were daunting and Sadler’s progress, especially early on, was fitful but, while not a ‘natural showman’ he secured fleeting fame. This account of his exploits does begin to run out of steam after a while (another year, another detailed account of another flight) but the pace quickens when Davies discusses, inter alia, the cultural context of ballooning or Sadler’s other career highlights – from working on steam engines and cannons to serving as ‘Chemist to the Board of Naval Works’.
The King of All Balloons will hold most appeal for aficionados – they will love all the technical detail – but as a slice of social history and an impassioned reminder of a neglected figure it deserves a wider readership.
This review was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical Magazine