Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cheep, Cheep

I've mentioned before my problems with getting historical timelines right (Steppeth Not Upon My Shoes of Blue Suede), and I've been having another mental realignment of "what took place when". I'm currently reading Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, and have just been reading the chapter about the first balloon flights.

I had no idea that the first experiments with flight took place in the mid-1770s. Why, that's the Age of Wigs! I don't know about you, but my perception of the Montgolfier Brothers and the other intrepid pioneers of "aerostation" has been corrupted by popular culture to the extent I believed balloon flight was pioneered in the Age of Moustaches. I blame Disney. Or perhaps Wacky Races.

I love it when scenes from two completely different movies overlap. In this case, I read that Gilbert White was quietly observing nature in his rectory garden at Selborne in October 1784, when Jean-Pierre Blanchard passed overhead in a hydrogen balloon. According to White in The Natural History of Selborne, even through a telescope it appeared to be no bigger than a large tea-urn. He had a few thoughts on the nature of the Sublime, and then returned to watching the birds. I don't suppose Blanchard realised he had just passed through someone else's story.

And how about this for insight:
I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race -- as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of Man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.

Horace Walpole, letter to H. Mann, 2 Dec. 1783

Plus ça change ...

Ballooning in the Age of Wigs, ca. 1785
(Snuff box, from the Penn-Gaskell Collection
of 'Ballooniana', Science Museum).

Meanwhile, back in the Age of Mobile Phones, I was walking down our street when I heard a familiar cheeping noise. Cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep. No, not a ringtone. I knew instantly what it was: a male House Sparrow doing his thing in a shrub in someone's front garden. I was astonished: I haven't seen or heard a House Sparrow in our part of town for 20 years. What with that, and the Chiffchaff and the Goldfinches that have appeared in our garden this spring, I'm beginning to believe that the birds believe things are looking up. Perhaps they're right.


Toad said...

One can only hope.

David Brookes said...


The French term for a hot air balloon is "un montgolfier".

Mike C. said...


One does -- though I should warn you about our neighbour's cat, Smokie, who has a thing about amphibians, not to mention the Magpies, who'll eat anything. Lay low.


According to Holmes, the French had more or less covered all the aeronautic bases by the time of the Napoleonic Wars -- including the Mile High Club (1.609344 Kilometre High Club?) -- while we Brits regarded it as mere showmanship.

Notably, the first balloon Channel crossing was done by an argumentive pair, Blanchard and Jeffries -- a Frenchman and an American -- who had to discard their clothes en route in order not to hit the cliffs at Calais. At least, that was their story.


Martyn Cornell said...

The house sparrow is one of the commoner birds in Abu Dhabi, strangely: we also have an unbelievable number of feral cats.

Mike C. said...

Hi, Martyn -- oddly, I've literally just been reading about "session beers" over at your place.

So, that's where all the sparrows went... Cheap nests and sunshine, I expect. Maybe the cats will encourage them to come back.


Martin H. said...

Our House Martins returned this year (16th or 17th April for 11 consecutive years) to discover House Sparrows squatting in their nests. The protests have been pretty loud and prolonged, but the Sparrows ain't for moving.

Mike C. said...


Hmm, maybe they really have got tired of Abu Dhabi... One forgets what a pest they could be, and that damned cheeping can really get on your nerves...


Dave Leeke said...

We've just noticed sparrows making a nest in our neighbour's guttering. Perhaps they think it's never going to rain here anymore. They're in for a bit of a surprise, this dry spell is surely just that. A spell.

At least cats can't get to them - and I think any chancer magpies are going to have a job stealing the eggs.

I've just been watching a solitary goldfinch a few minutes ago. All in all, this weather is proving to be a real joy. No hosepipe ban yet, thankfully.

Mike C. said...


Ah, sparrows ... gutters ... nests ... It's all coming back. I can remember my father cursing at the top of a ladder every year as he cleared sparrows nests our of our gutters and eaves. I also remember the horrible pink baby sparrows -- like semi-transparent, miniature aliens -- that regularly fell out of them. Even our cat wouldn't eat them. I wonder if sparrows (plus no gardening) was one of the reasons we moved to a flat?


RobG said...

This book may be of interest Mike, 'Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World', by Peter Macinnis. It deals with the year 1859, and the many changes that happened that year.

The author gives an outline of the book here.

I quite enjoyed it, it's full of interesting 'did you know?' moments.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, RobG, I'll check it out.