With the departure of Malcolm Forbes some years ago, a man who virtually defined “joi de vivre” for many of us, even those of us a little unsure how to spell it (I took Russian), one might have expected interest in ballooning to fade from the scene. But now come three — count ’em, three! — sets of madmen (the maddest of whom is a set of just one guy, solo, with no pressurized cabin) who propose to circumnavigate the globe by balloon.

I am no stranger to hot air. And I have even inhaled a lungful of helium or two. It makes you talk like this. But to risk one’s life just to end up approximately where you started? When Magellan tried it by boat, he was killed by natives, but at least he proved the earth was round and got a hell of a mutual fund named after him. But now we know the earth is round — smoother than a bowling ball, they say, despite Everest and the Empire State Building — so why is Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson leading one such expedition, with two other lesser knowns in hot pursuit? Why risk getting shot down by the North Koreans?

OK, OK, it’s thrilling. To read more about it all, click here.

But why am I telling you this? It is because I hold in my hand a letter written in 1878 by the famous French balloonist Louis Godard to the Mayor of Avignon. Or at least I hope he was famous. When I bought it, I just sort of assumed he was the Godard for whom the Goddard Space Center was named, but now suspect that it was named for the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard, with two D’s. And I just sort of assumed he was famous because, well, I knew the name Godard (Jean Luc Godard, perhaps, the famous French film director?).

But he must have been famous, because look at his letterhead. It’s festooned with engravings of Godard balloons, “with joyous and excited clients as well as professional entertainers and daredevils suspended in some fashion from these wondrous contraptions” (as the catalog copy had it).

I should point out that not quite 120 years after he wrote this letter you could, for the price of a sandwich, pull a phone (the prototype having been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, just two years earlier) from the seatback in front of you, slide your credit card through, and make a call from 37,000 feet as you make the 4.5 hour trip from JFK to LAX.

But in 1878 — as today — people were enthralled by balloons, and Godard was haggling with the Mayor of Avignon over prices. “Mr. Mayor,” he wrote, “The price quoted you by Montbrison for 800 francs is correct, but that was for an ascent in a Montgolfier in which a descent is made 5 minutes outside of town — which is of interest to no one — and in which an ascent is made to a height of 200 meters.” [Ninety-one years later, man would walk on the moon, but I digress.] “If I have not asked for more, it is because I was pressed not to charge more, but ordinarily these are not my prices.”

Whereupon he lists:

“A simple ascension in a 280 cubic meter balloon capable of carrying the aeronaut — 100F. The cost of gas and travel costs to be borne by the city.” [The first automobile was about a decade away, so gas would presumably have been for the balloon.] “Ascent with a trapeze exercise suspended by one hand — 1,000F. Ascent with a parachute descent — 2,000F and the balloon containing 900 cubic meters of gas carrying 4 persons.” [You might wonder what parachutes were for given the stark absence of airplanes in 1878. Yet they were, apparently, for balloons — the first successful jump from “a great height” — 920 meters — having been made in 1797 by another Frenchman, Jacques Garnerin. I’m going to get my money’s worth from the multimedia encyclopedia that came with my new computer if it kills us.]

“I would suggest to you also to take for 100F some balloons of 5 meters’ height which will descend some 15 or 20 leagues from the city, bearing the names of the cities which commissioned the flight, the letters 50 centimeters in height and each balloon carrying 5 parachutes dropping toys and hard candies — which are a very nice accompaniment to an ascent. I would make a dozen for you if you accept.

“So, Mr. Mayor, there are my prices. If by the end of the week I have not received your answer, I shall consider the matter closed. Please accept, sir, the expression of my deepest respect. Godard, Aeronaut for the Government.”

A hundred years from now, when Bill Gates’ ideas are going to be considered quaint, and today’s Pentium-powered notebooks objects of amusement, will some wiseass autograph collector be quoting his handwritten letters? I think not. Unless I miss my mark, Bill Gates is an e-mail kind of guy.

(Where do you find letters like this? There’s a list of them printed every day. No, wait. That’s NASDAQ. You find these letters via dealers and auctions).

Next Week: What of Mutual Series Now? and Playing the Fool



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