Scientist of the Day - Camille Flammarion
The Flammarion collection of books on ballooning, 27 items (Linda Hall Library)
Camille Flammarion, a French astronomer and writer, was born Feb. 26, 1842. We first celebrated Flammarion’s birthday five years ago, when we discussed one of his books on popular astronomy held by our Library, and in particular, a notorious “medieval” woodcut from that book that has fooled many careless scholars looking for illustrations. In addition to writing a dozen other books on astronomy, Flammarion was also active in professionalizing amateur astronomy, which sounds oxymoronic, but really isn’t. He founded the Société Astronomique de France in 1887 and served as its first president. He had earlier been president of the Société Aérostatique de France, aerostatics being the science of ballooning, and in conjunction with that position, he assembled a collection of books on lighter-than-air vehicles. We don’t know how large the entire collection was, but in 2013, we acquired 27 rare books and pamphlets on balloons and dirigibles from his library, a number of them autographed presentation copies to Flammarion.
Decorative front covers, Ateliers les plus vastes du monde, by Gabriel Yon, 1900? (left), and La navigation atmosphérique, by Eugène Farcot, 1859 (Linda Hall Library)
One of the nicest features of the collection is that Flammarion preserved his books in their original paper wrappers, resisting the temptation to have them bound. Since many of the paper covers are decorative, this means that these copies retain illustrations that were often lost in the rebinding process, at least back then. We arranged the entire collection on a library table for this post (first image), and then individually photographed some of the more attractive pieces, as well as a few with interesting inscriptions.
Decorative front cover, and half-title with presentation inscription, Gaston Tissandier, En ballon!, 1871 (Linda Hall Library)
The images just above show a book by Gaston Tissandier, presented to Flammarion in 1871. Tissandier had escaped Paris in a balloon in 1870, during the Siege of Paris, and wrote a book about the escapade, which is the work pictured here. Tissandier, who went on to become one of the great high-altitude balloonists, has already earned a spot here as a Scientist of the Day.
Nadar was the pseudonym of a balloonist entrepreneur, who sponsored several ascensions of a balloon named Le Géant (Giant) in 1863, the last of which ended in disaster. Nadar presented a copy of his book Le droit au vol (The Right of Flight, 1865) to Flammarion (images just above). Nadar fared better in his primary vocation of portrait photographer, taking a number of memorable images of French personalities. When we wrote a post on Louis Pasteur in 2018, we included a photograph portrait of Pasteur by Nadar.
A few of Flammarion’s ballooning books include original photographs, some of them loosely inserted, some actually pasted into the books. The latter is the case with Constantin Danilewsky’s book on his dirigible, which has quite a few photographs glued into the back. Since they all show the same dirigible, it is possible that Danilewsky himself pasted them in (eight and ninth images, just above).
Finally, some of the pamphlets, in addition to their decorative covers, have fine printed illustrations inside. We show you one of these, the wood-engraved frontispiece to Gabriel Yon’s Note sur la direction des aerostat (1880; last image).
We were offered the Flammarion collection as a lot by the eminent French bookseller Hugues de Latude, and we jumped at the chance to acquire them. This is by far the best way to buy works that are very scarce, for you could search for these titles individually and probably not find most of them in a lifetime, certainly not in this pristine condition. In this case, we were happy to have Flammarion (and M de Latude) do the work for us.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.