Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Fanciful Flights of the Alcoholic Aeronaut

                                    You’d imagine from reading about Hugh Miller, Alexander Blackwell, Andrew Bell, Colin MacFarquhar and William Smellie that the production of eccentric writers was once something of a cottage industry in Scotland. Add to that list then the name of James Tytler. 

James Tytler

Tytler was born in Fearn, Angus on December 17th 1745, and had an excellent education at Edinburgh University, preparing him to follow his father as a Calvinist minister. James, however, preferred to study medicine and spent a year as ship’s surgeon on board a Leith whaler the Royal Bounty. He married early and began a family, which he tried to support by opening a pharmacy, but the business failed and he fled to England to avoid his creditors (shades of Blackwell’s story). With five children, he returned to Edinburgh, where he began to write, mostly low-paid hackwork, but failed again with works of his own. Eventually his wife left him, and he spent time in prison for debt before he was eventually appointed as editor of the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the sum of sixteen shillings per week. It was said he could précis an article as quickly as another man could read it, and he produced an enormous amount of articles, using an upturned barrel as his desk. It was whilst editing the Encyclopaedia that Tytler read about the hot air ballooning feats of the Montgolfier brothers in France and determined to emulate their exploits by building a balloon of his own. He built a model, which he displayed to the public for 6d. entrance fee, and used the scant funds to build a full-sized balloon. 

The Register House, Edinburgh

His first inflation was done beneath the dome of the partly built Register House in Princes Street, and his first tethered flight was advertised at Comely Garden on August 6th 1784, but either adverse weather conditions or technical problems halted the attempt; a mob attacked the balloon and the press attacked Tytler. Undeterred, he tried again on August 25th and floated a few feet above the ground for a short while whilst tethered to the ground. Two days later, wearing only a cork jacket for protection, Tytler climbed into the little wicker basket and lit the stove beneath the forty foot barrel of his invention and the Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon was untied, soaring to the height of 350 feet. 

The Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon

It carried James for over half a mile, a flight ‘most agreeable with no giddiness’, before landing near the village of Restalrig. Tytler was feted as a hero and four days later, before an enormous paying audience at Comely Garden and on Arthur’s Seat, he made another ascent, a short ‘leap’ of 100 feet over the pavilion, before slowly descending again, much to the delight of the spectators. He was the first man to fly in the British sky. With typical bad luck, another attempt in October failed when he jumped from the basket and the capricious press turned against him, deeming that enough time had been ‘trifled away on this misshapen smoke-bag’, and damned the former ‘toast of Edinburgh’ as a ‘coward’. 

Balloonists - Tytler middle left.

The debts incurred by his ballooning adventures led Tytler back into bankruptcy, a position not helped when his wife sued him for divorce on the grounds that he had had two daughters by another woman. He took to travelling around Scotland and northern England, earning what little money he could from his not inconsiderable repertory of skills – writing, selling medicine, song writing, bagpipe playing, poetry and publishing. His radical political writing led to him being outlawed in absentia for seditious libel by the Scottish High Court in 1793 and he fled, first to Belfast and then in 1795 to Salem, Massachusetts, where he edited the Salem Register, published other works and sold medicine. A life-long alcoholic, he left his house, drunk, on January 9th 1804 and his body was recovered from the sea two days later.

Robert Burns described Britain’s first aeronaut as “…an obscure, tippling, but extraordinary body of the name of Tytler commonly known by the name of "Balloon Tytler", from his having projected a balloon, a mortal who, though he drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a sky-lighted hat, and knee-buckles as unlike as George-by-the-Grace-of-God and Solomon-the-Son-of-David; yet that same unknown drunken mortal is author and compiler of three-fourths of Elliot's pompous Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he composed at half-a-guinea a week."

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