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‘Balloonomania’ swept Britain in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks largely to the exploits of the early aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi. Following in the footsteps of the Montgolfier brothers in France, Lunardi arrived in London from Italy in the early 1780s determined to demonstrate the wonders of balloon-powered flight to the public. On the morning of 15 September 1784 nearly 200,000 people watched as Lunardi launched into the air in a hydrogen balloon, accompanied by his companions a dog, a cat and a pigeon, and drifted northwards for 24 miles before landing safely in Hertfordshire. For the next 50 years or so balloon flights across Britain became all the rage, drawing huge and expectant crowds whenever news of a launch was published, influencing science, literature and even fashions in the process. Pictured here is a public display of Lunardi’s balloon at the Pantheon in London, shortly after his maiden flight.

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