Unidentified flying object approaching from Prague – Balloon journeys as a spectacular show

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Joseph II did not think much of the craze for the balloon flights which people got so excited about at the end of the eighteenth century. The first manned balloon flight in the Monarchy did not take place until after his death.

I have received your letter, Mr. Blanchard. You have sufficiently satisfied the curiosity of your spectators by the many experiments you have undertaken in many different places, so that there is therefore no doubt as to your success. As soon as you have used your knowledge and repeated experiments to find a means to render your ‘aerostation’ in some way useful, I shall find it agreeable if you want to come to Vienna in order to instruct me in and convince me of this matter.

Joseph II replied to a written request on 2 May 1786

… I want therefore to be so bold as, with the approach of spring, to invite a highly respected public to a display by an airship that is much bigger than the one that Herr Montgolfier demonstrated in Paris on 21 November last year.

Quote from Wiener Zeitung, 20 March 1784

The flights undertaken by Jean Louis Pierre Blanchard, a French balloonist, had caused a great deal of excitement among people in many of Europe’s cities. Vienna was one of the places on his programme, but Joseph II showed no interest whatsoever in such a display.

Even before the emperor refused to allow such an appearance there had initially been little interest in Vienna. First Alois von Widmannstätter, a printer from Graz, and then Johann Georg Stuwer, Imperial-Royal Firework Impresario in Vienna, had organized some unmanned balloon flights, but with little success. Stuwer’s flights were grandly announced in the Wiener Zeitung, the official gazette, but little came of them.

By way of contrast, the first flights by Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier in Paris and other European cities had unleashed a veritable aviation euphoria which spread to every possible side of life. Clocks, porcelain, wallpaper and fans were decorated with motifs showing a balloon in flight. It was not long before the first manned balloon flights took place.

Finally, in December 1790, it was the turn of Vienna: Jean Blanchard’s balloon approached the city from the direction of Prague and after landing could be inspected for a fee of ten kreuzer. However, the Viennese had still to wait some time before they could witness the spectacle of a manned balloon lifting off. This was because Johann Stuwer did not want to make his firework display site in the Prater available to Blanchard. Once this quarrel had been settled and after some unsuccessful attempts the French balloonist was at last able to thrill the Viennese too.

Christina Linsboth