JF Ptak Science Books Post 2004
Question: What is 150’ in diameter, weights 80 tons, carries 60 scientists, a cannon, a big rooster, an escape pod for women, and makes transcontinental flights?
And so: what is ten times bigger, and carries ten times more people? Bigger but still the same nothing--though a more-magnificent nothingness.
The first example did however live in print as the great balloon La Minerve, the prankish gesture of the Belgian optico-magician, physics experimenter/exhibitionist and general experimenter (and probable crumbun) “Dr. Roberston”, who was actually Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763-1837). Robert did have vast experience with balloons—he was Commandant des Aerostiers during the war, serving under General Jourdain in Belgium and Holland in 1803/4, providing valuable observations on the enemy troops and movements from tethered (and not) balloon observing stations; he is also regarded by some as the inventor of the parachute. He had a wide interested in optics and toys, making a very profitable tour with Brewster mirrors, demonstrating all manner of specters and floating bodies and such for a paying audience.
He came up with this sci-fi-ish idea in the early 19th century, and published his dream broadsided swipe at other aeronauts in 1820 under the title of La Minerve, vaisseau aérien, destiné aux découvertes et proposé à toutes les Académies de l'Europe par le physicien Robertson. There was nothing about this balloon that would’ve worked, and Robertson knew it, intending his pamphlet to be more of caricature of existing attempts in flight than as a science fiction creation. (The pamphlet reads a little mean-spirited to me regarding the Minerve; other sections, which dealt with single-occupant air-transport devices of imaginative construction, seem less so.)
In any event, Roberston provided large creature comforts for his travelers, not the least of which was a ship (which seems to be 175 feet long) holding 60 scientists and providing enough space for long-distance sleeping arrangements, laboratories, observation decks, a kitchen, food supplies, water and the like. There is a (large!) cannon in the bow of the Minerve, which is also topped by an enormous cock (I figure it to be 50 feet from tail to beak), a gigantic and heavy symbol for vigilance (at what price?) . There are several small out buildings, as well as a smaller balloon that housed the women who accompanied the all-male crew on these long distance jaunts.
There is an enormous anchor where the power source for forward motion should
be. Alas! Roberston has provided no means of thrust,
trusting the winds to take the massive balloon to-and-fro.
(“Minerva” is the Roman goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce and crafts, as well as the goddess of warriors. She also invented music.)
And the next example of the magnificent nothing, the Great Monster, appeared in 1837. It was supposed to support 80 houses, steam powered with a large coalhouse and raintanks; it supported gardens and other ammenities, and was to support upwards of 1,000 people--it would be crowded, though, even though the thing was supposed to be 14,000 feet in diameter and 682' high. It was huge, tall, and travelled at 100 mph
Even though the Minerve was a smaller undertaking, its 19th-century Baroque crenulations and insistence upon levels of dangling laddered bits make it a peculiar favorite in spite of the 2.5-mile diameter of the monsterosu Great Monster.