Bill told me that balloons originated here in France. It turns out that they were first invented in China, but France had the first manned flights.
I hadn't finished reading Seven Ages of Paris, Portrait of a City, by Alistair Horne before we went to France last summer (but I have since). Like G. M. Trevalyan's English Social History, Horne's writing style is very readable. I would highly recommend this book to any Francophile, or history-phile for that matter. I really like France, but not to the exclusion of everywhere else, so I consider myself more of the latter.
This is an excerpt talking about 1870 when Napoleon III surrendered to the Germans and Bismarck marched towards Paris. Paris, however, was having none of this surrender and barricaded itself up for a siege. The year 1870-1871* is referred to as l'année terrible [The Terrible Year] in a series of poems by Victor Hugo. And weirdly coincidental (since I drafted this post months ago), it was about this time that the Barton Arcade was being constructed in Manchester.
There is much more detail about how the balloons were sewn, what they carried (tonnes of mail!) and how the lowly homing pigeon was the only means of getting messages back into Paris, so some bright spark had the idea of adding pigeons to the city's coat of arms."Resistance. A possible answer ... was provided by the balloons of Paris - which were to constitute probably the most illustrious, most courageous and most inventive single episode of the the siege. To most people today, the Siege of Paris prompts two main images: the eating of cats and rats [horses, dogs and much of the zoo] by starving citizens, and the use of balloons. If the first epitomizes the depths of a collapsing civilization can reach, the second symbolizes man's capacity for courage and resourcefulness in the face of adversity. The balloons of Paris would come close to being the nation's 'finest hour' of the whole war."
I hadn't read all this yet on that peaceful summer evening. I just enjoyed the lovely colours, the graceful float and the incredible courage of the person flying this balloon, which appeared to entertain us several evenings that week.