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‘Balloonacy’: Commander Cheyne's flight of fancy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2008

Huw Lewis-Jones*
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Lensfield Road, Cambridge, CB2 1ER


Commander John P. Cheyne, R.N. (1826–1902) is a forgotten figure in the history of nineteenth-century polar exploration. A veteran of three expeditions in search of the missing Franklin expedition, his retirement was atypical of the many naval officers who had served in the Arctic. Late in 1876, after the disappointing return of the British Arctic expedition under George Strong Nares, Cheyne first announced his grand plans to reach the North Pole by balloon. He embarked on a transatlantic lecture tour in an effort to raise funds. It was a novel proposal that captured public imagination, but also drew wide criticism, and sometimes ridicule. This paper draws upon a study of primary and secondary materials: original manuscripts and correspondence, British and American newspapers and the illustrated press, souvenirs, pamphlets, and periodical reviews. This is a neglected episode in the history of polar exploration and in the history of aeronautics more generally, and it is a story of naivety and optimism, bravado and speculation. This paper examines the prevailing currents of public opinion of the value of exploration in this period, the debates surrounding new techniques of polar travel, and the changing image of the explorer. Both aeronautical pioneer and itinerant showman, Cheyne was increasingly maligned as a charlatan and lunatic. He proved unable to realise his dream of polar flight.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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