Anticipations and aerostatic warfare

From Napoleon’s invasion of Great Britain to the global conflict of the year 1937. A new future-wars series – 1 / 3

It is 1803, on the English coast in front of the Channel, crowds of people are beginning to gather. Looking up, someone points to the silhouette of a large flying object in the distance. New dark dots appear on the horizon as the first one approaches. With horror, the spectators gradually make out a gigantic balloon with a mushroom-like profile. In the huge gondola fixed under the balloon there are dozens, hundreds of men, even horses. The high-altitude wind stirs the French tricolour: Napoleon’s armies have come to invade England, carried by the largest balloons ever built by human hands.

Argaud de Barges, La Thiloriere ou Déscente en Angleterre, “Projet d’une Montgolfiere capable d’enlever 3,000 Hommes et qui ne coutera que 300,000 Francs on y suspendra une lampe qui présentera une nappe de flamme suffisante pour empêcher le refroidissement. Extrait du Publiciste du Jeudi 13 Prairial de l’An XI”, Paris, Chez Boulard, 1803, detail. Copy at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, via Gallica. Work in the public domain, no restrictions on the use of reproduction in scientific publications.

We look away and find ourselves safe and sound at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where we are admiring an etching by Jean Louis Argaud de Barges (1768-1808),[1] printed in the Prairial month of year XI of the French Republic (June 1803) (Figure above).[2]

It is one of the most striking testimonies of a fascinating cultural conjuncture. Between 1803 and 1805, at the outbreak of the Third Coalition war and before the Battle of Trafalgar, French plans to invade Britain had taken shape, motivating the preparation of British defences, including the fortifications along the coast sketchily portrayed by de Barges in the background. The project echoed the plans for conquest that had followed one another throughout the eighteenth century, the last of which had been abandoned in 1798 in favour of the Egyptian campaign.[3]

The illustration by de Barges, a printer and caricaturist, a former camp attendant trained at the military school of Tournon, combines this background with a futuristic projection based on the latest technology of the time, the hot air balloon. Since the first ascents by the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783, the possibility of human flight had immediately captured the attention of Europe and America, launching a fashion that fuelled paid public demonstrations, publications, popular posters and prints, theatrical performances and satires, toys and themed merchandise.[4] Military applications, for example in territorial reconnaissance, had been picked up and implemented in armies such as the French, where an aerial department – the Compagnie d’aérostiers – had been inaugurated in 1784.

Starting from some figurative and literary works that employed the narrative mechanism of the setting in the future produced in the Napoleonic era on both sides of the Channel, this series argues how the imaginary war is a privileged observatory on the anxieties related to armed conflict that have run through late modern and contemporary European culture. Against this backdrop, human flight by means of aerostats – devices made lighter than the surrounding air through the use of hot air or special gases – lends itself to exemplifying the relationship that proto-sciencefictional narratives developed with technology as a vehicle for cognitive estrangement and a source of a sense of wonder. On the basis of this interpretative hypothesis, the fortune of the aerostat used for military purposes in the proto-sciencefictional imagination between the end of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century is briefly reconstructed. A few remarks are reserved for the enduring fortune of this trope up to the 2000s, and its emblematic use of a relationship of fascination and subversion towards the past and towards a linear conception of historical time entertained by neo-Victorian and neo-Edwardian narratives and artistic creations.

The engraving by de Barges embodies the international tensions of his time and refers to coeval technological frontiers, giving them a science-fiction twist. The invention, which takes the familiar to extreme developments and projects it into an unspecified but imminent future, offers itself as a fantastic commentary on current events and as a propaganda tool. Our starting image is in this sense representative of a rich and lively production that characterised the publishing markets on both sides of the Channel. In the space of a few years, the horrors of a French invasion of Britain, whether by air or not, were imagined in different languages, and in opposing ideological keys, by a wealth of written and figurative works.[5] This mass of articles in periodicals, flyers and pamphlets also bears witness today to the developments that were taking place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in European publishing and public communication, in which the genres of political propaganda were mixed with narrative inventions and openly fictional elements, and where new readers were emerging.[6]

Some of these representations, which are characterised by a speculative character, a logical-fantastic extrapolation of possible consequences from known premises, can be described as ‘proto-fantascientific’, retrospectively applying a genre label that would be codified more than a century later.[7] Inventions such as de Barges’s interpreted the anxieties and trends of their day and brought to the stage a future-bound imagination that postulated a progressive historical diachrony, according to which the time to come could only harbour the linear development of what had been in the past and was in the present of the author and his readers. Napoleon’s plans for British conquest between 1803 and 1805, against the backdrop of the wars that swept across 18th-century Europe, fuelled an exemplary production of how science fiction imagery represented armed conflicts, and how it contributed to the ‘paper wars’ for the mobilisation of public opinion that accompanied these conflicts.[8]

 

Anticipations and aerostatic warfare – Series Abstract

Drawing on a number of figurative and literary works that employed the narrative mechanism of a future setting produced in the Napoleonic era on both sides of the English Channel, this essay argues that fictional wars offer a vantage point to observe the anxieties related to armed conflict that have run through late modern and contemporary European culture. Against this backdrop, human flight by means of aerostatic devices lends itself to exemplifying the relationship that proto-scientific narratives developed with technology as a means for cognitive estrangement and as a source of a sense of the wonder. Following this interpretative hypothesis, this paper briefly traces the fortune of the aerostat used for military purposes in early speculative fiction between the end of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. Some remarks are devoted to the enduring success of this trope in the second millennium, to its use as emblematic of a relationship of fascination and subversion towards the past and towards a linear conception of historical time entertained by neo-Victorian and neo-Edwardian narratives and artistic creations.

Keywords: imaginary wars, aerostat, Napoleonic plans to invade Great Britain, Seven Years’ War, American Revolutionary War

This blog post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, Guerre del futuro: Anticipazioni e aerostati da battaglia, dall’invasione napoleonica della Gran Bretagna al conflitto mondiale del 1937, in Ragioni Comuni 2017-18, ed. Ilaria Micheli (Trieste: EUT, 2022), 127-142. ISBN: 9788855113076, eISNB: 9788855113083.


NOTES

[1] M. Roux, Un siècle d’histoire de France par l’estampe, 1770-1871. Collection de Vinck. Inventaire analytique. Tome IV – Napoléon et son temps (Directoire, Consulat, Empire), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, 1929, p. 202.

[2] J. L. Argaud de Barges, La Thiloriere ou Descente en Angleterre: Projet d’une Montgolfiere capable d’enlever 3.000 Hommes et qui ne coutera que 300.000 Francs […], Paris, Chez Boulard, 1803.

[3] Peter Hicks, The ‘Great Fear’ in the United Kingdom, 1802-1805, in: ‘Napoleonica. La Revue”, no. 32, 2018, pp. 97-118.

[4] M R Lynn, The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820, London, Pickering & Chatto, 2010; on consumption practices see in particular pp. 143-62; Richard Gillespie, Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786: Aerostation and Adventurism, in: ‘Isis’, 75, no. 2, 1984, pp. 249-74.68.

[5] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 19922, pp. 1-26.

[6] P. Keen, The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England, in: ‘Eighteenth-Century Studies’, 39, no. 42006, pp. 507-35.

[7] G. Westfahl, The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1998; A. Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, Houndmills and New York, Palgrave Macmillian, 20162.

[8] T. Keymer, “Paper Wars: Literature and/as Conflict during the Seven Years’ War”, in: The Culture of the Seven Years’ War: Empire, Identity, and the Arts in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, ed. Frans de Bruyn and Shaun Regan, Toronto, Buffalo and London, University of Toronto Press, 2014, pp. 119-146.



Cite this blog post
Giulia Iannuzzi (2023, February 1). Anticipations and aerostatic warfare. Geographies of Time. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/przg

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