From an early age, Eduard Spelterini dreamed of fame. When his first plan lost air, he became a balloon pilot. In a celebrated career of daring feats and many firsts, he paved the way for Google Maps with his dramatic aerial photography across the Swiss Alps, Africa and Asia.
The son of an innkeeper in the Swiss region of Toggenberg, he was named Eduard Schweizer (June 2, 1852 – June 16, 1931). His family moved to the province of Como on the Swiss-Italian border. At 18, he studied opera in Milan and possibly Paris. Always with an knack for publicity, he changed his name to one that he believed was more dramatic–Eduard Spelterini. His career in opera was ended abruptly by an acute case of pneumonia but his new name survived.
By the Victorian Era, hot air balloons were all the rage. In 1877 he was licensed as a balloon pilot by the Académie d’Aérostation météorologique de France. It was the beginning of his career as an aeronaut where he hoped to “break new ground” while flying new air currents. He had his work cut out for him; he was not the first balloonist, nor was he the first to photograph famous sites from the sky.
In 1878-79, Henri Giffard launched a massive hot air balloon from the Tuileries Garden in Paris for the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World Fair. Giffard wanted to give the average citizen a chance to experience flight. He flew 35,000 people during the fair. He also utilized the relatively new innovation of photography to capture Paris from the air.
Possibly inspired by Giffard, Spelterini was offering commercial rides in hot air balloons in the 1880s, although on a much smaller scale. In 1898 he commissioned his own gas balloon, the Urania. It had a volume of 1,500 cubic meters. By comparison, Giffard’s was 36 meters in diameter and 55 meters high. It could hold up to 25,000 cubic meters of pure hydrogen and could rise to 600 meters. Giffard’s basket could carry up to 50 passengers per flight.
Eduard Spelterini took his first voyage in Urania on Oct. 5, 1897. It was a time when every publication was looking for the next hot story. With his natural talent for attracting publicity he always made sure he was in the news by taking journalist up for free rides. In today’s world he would have been the king of social media.
In June and July of 1888 he and Leona Dare were a feature act at the Crystal Palace in London. He would take her, suspended under the basket of his balloon. Some sources say he would go to 5,000 feet while she performed her acrobatics. It was these performances that lifted both to world fame.
Dare and Spelterini performed across Europe. In mid-1889, she was attacked by a mob of Russian peasants during her descent back to earth.
From Russia they travelled to Bucharest where they performed at the Cismigiu garden on October 8. Spelterini took journalists in the balloon with Spelterini on several of these famous performances.
By the time he returned to Switzerland in 1891, Spelterini had achieved fame. Crowds and journalists appeared routinely to witness his dramatic ascents. He had turned flight into a glamorous event. His passengers included the rich and famous to important government officials. An international press corps looking for the next sensational story followed him. His well-publicized ascents included thousands of paying spectators on the ground.
He was attracting the awe of the general public as well as the interest of the scientific community. Physicians, physicists and geologists alike clamored to conduct studies and experiments from the dizzying heights he achieved routinely. It was geologist Albert Heim who suggested the now famed trek across the Alps. In order to make this flight, he organized sponsors to help him build a larger balloon. The “Wega” had a volume of 3,260 cubic meters.
In 1898, Spelterini and Heim set out to make the hazardous passage over the Swiss Alps, a trip then thought impossible. Their original plan was to cross from Sion to Uri to the Grisons. The winds did not cooperate and they ended up landing in France. They traveled at unheard of altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 meters above sea level.
Starting in 1893, Spelterini began taking camera equipment on his flights. He used his photographs on speaking tours that further publicized his business. His photographic collection can be viewed in Eduard Spelterini—Photographs of A Pioneer Balloonist. The book presents images produced directly from the artist’s original glass negatives from his journeys over the Swiss Alps, the Egyptian pyramids, the ziggurats of the Middle East, and taking stunning photographs of landscapes and cities across Europe.
1890-03-04: First flight in Egypt — “Urania”, hydrogen
1890-09-19: First flight in Naples — “Urania”, hydrogen
1899-11-08: First flight in Rumania – “Urania”, hydrogen
1911-07-02: First flight in South Africa — “Sirius”, hydrogen
Sadly, borders closed with WWI and that included sky travel. Like so many people, the war and resulting inflation depleted Spelterini’s fortune. Ballooning declined as airplanes and other craft were on the rise. By 1922, his former business as the host and pilot of grand tours was diminished to a position as a “driver” giving short rides on a tethered balloon to tourists at Tivioli Gardens in Copenhagen.
He died destitute and unknown in 1931, but his spirit soars forever through his magnificent photography.
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