4 minute read time.

By Anne Locker

What connects meteorology, the siege of Paris and the first air mail deliveries? A book in the IET Library’s S P Thompson Study Collection, Thunder and Lightning by Wilfrid de Fonvielle.

Thunder and Lightning (1868)

The original text of Thunder and Lightning, titled Éclairs et tonnerre, was published in France in 1867 and ran to four editions. This English translation by T L Phipson was published in 1868. The book is a colourful description of the causes and effects of thunder and lightning, taken from scientific studies, newspaper reports and folk literature.

Wilfrid de Fonvielle was born in Paris on 25 July 1826. He was a journalist, popular science writer and meteorologist but is best known as a balloonist.

In 1867, de Fonvielle was writing about the wonders of science in general and meteorology in particular. His book is spiced up with newspaper accounts, moral explanations and over 50 illustrations. Some of the claims made by de Fonvielle were more popular than scientific, such as his idea that the more creative you are, the more susceptible to atmospheric electricity:

“Nothing prevents our supposing that nervous impressionable individuals, as the interpreters of dreams or visions generally are, may be such good conductors of electricity as to occasion these spontaneous discharges of electric fluid…”

Thunder and Lightning p. 24
Illustration of a man illuminated by an aureola

Nervous individuals were not the only people who should be worried. Many of the illustrations show criminals getting their just deserts in the form of a lightning strike, such as this one of a brigand who was captured by soldiers.

Illustration of a brigand struck by lightning

Following the work of the physicist Francois Arago, the book discusses the theory of lighting as action between two ‘reservoirs’ of electricity. We would now  describe this as a discharge between two electrically charged regions. It also documents the rare ‘ball’ or ‘globular’ lightning – so rare that modern scientists have yet to confirm its existence, let alone explain it.

Illustration of globular lightning

De Fonvielle tells the story of a ‘peasant lad’ who observed ‘globular lightning’ in the village of Salagnac in 1845 and used his knowledge of the new marvel of electricity to stay out of danger:

“Luckily for him this peasant lad had been to Paris, and had been electrified one day on the Champs Elysees for two sous. He had learned to respect the mysterious fluid and its shocks … a few seconds later the treacherous sphere exploded violently in a neighbouring stable. It killed a pig which happened to be shut up there, and which, knowing nothing about the wonders of thunder and lightning, dared to smell it in a most rude and unbecoming manner.”

Thunder and Lightning (p. 37)

Balloons and the Siege of Paris (1870-1871)

De Fonvielle is supposed to have made his first journey by balloon in 1858, presumably in connection with his meteorological research. He and Gaston Tissandier (another meteorologist turned aeronaut) took a short flight together in 1869.

The next year, in the final months of the Franco-Prussian War, de Fonvielle’s home city of Paris was under siege. The only way out was by air, and in 1870 this meant coal-gas air balloons. During the siege, the government used balloons to carry government despatches – the first documented air mail service. They also carried people who used the balloons as a risky method of escape. Two of the escapees were Wilfrid de Fonvielle and Gaston Tissandier.

Balloonists hoping to escape the city had two options. They could fly at night to avoid being shot at, and increase their chances of escape when they landed. This approach was favoured by the government. Or they could fly in daylight when they could see to navigate the balloon (they were very difficult to steer) and land more safely. Daylight flights were dangerous, especially when the Prussian forces started to send cavalry troops to chase them.

De Fonvielle chose to travel by day in a coal gas balloon named L’Égalité. The government refused to let them carry any post, but they managed to sail over the besieging army to land in Leuven, Belgium, in November 1870. He wrote about his experiences in the books Travels in the Air, published in 1871, and Aventures aériennes et expériences mémorables des grands aéronauts, published in 1876.

Wilfrid de Fonvielle died in April 1914, three months before the outbreak of the First World War. You can read more about the balloon flights of the Siege of Paris here.

To search the IET Library collections and find our more about accessing our rare book and reference collections, please visit the IET Library website.

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