A Picture History of One of the World’s Greatest Hot Air Balloons

Designed by Charles Green, the Great Nassau was big enough to capture the imaginations of an entire country

the Great Nassau
Balloon prints like this one, of the Great Nassau “enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time,” writes Tom D. Crouch of the National Air and Space Museum. National Air and Space Museum

Balloons were a big deal in the nineteenth century. Giant and improbable, floating through the air they were filled with more than just air: in the eyes of the Victorians, they flew with the promise of a future of flight.

“When the first balloon rose over the rooftops of Paris in the late 18th century, enormous crowds gathered to watch,” writes the Smithsonian Institute in a press release. “The phenomenon spurred a new age of aeronauts dreaming of what else could fly.”

That fascination lasted for more than a century, and no balloon captured the imagination more than the Great Nassau, designed by pioneering British balloonist Charles Green, who was born on this day in 1785.

Green was an innovator who pioneered the use of coal gas instead of hydrogen gas to power balloons, as well as the use of the guide rope, a way of controlling the otherwise-unsteerable balloon’s progress using, literally, a long rope. Coal gas made inflation faster, caused less damage to the silk balloons and was much less expensive, write historians Eric Hodgins and F. Alexander Magoun.

The images below tell the story of the huge balloon which floated over London’s Vauxhall Gardens: First called the Vauxhall Royal Balloon, it was rechristened the Great Nassau after a record-setting flight to Nassau, Germany.   

A sad chapter in the Great Nassau’s life: during an ascent, parachute designer Robert Cocking perished in the course of testing an unsuccessful design. (1837) National Air and Space Museum
On November 7 1836, aeronauts Robert Holland, Thomas Monck Mason and Charles Green rode the Vauxhall Royal Balloon all the way to Nassau, Germany. They thought the journey would take two weeks, but it only took 18 hours. National Air and Space Museum
An engraving of the Vauxhall Royal Balloon on its first flight on September 9 1836. It hung over the Royal Gardens, an adult “pleasure garden” or what today we might call a fun park. National Air and Space Museum
Ascents and descents in balloons were a popular form of recreation. The Great Nassau was the biggest balloon of its kind at the time, at more than 60 feet tall and 50 feet across. (1838) Library of Congress

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