The First Irish Sea Balloon Crossing: Success

The invention of hot air balloon travel in the 1780s transformed the relationship between air and sea. But crossing the Irish Sea by balloon would prove to be no easy matter.


The race to be the first to cross the Irish Sea by hot air balloon would turn out to be a family affair. After James Sadler’s high-profile attempt failed in October 1812, the baton was taken up by his 20-year-old aeronaut son, Windham Sadler, in 1817. Like his father, Sadler published an account of his groundbreaking flight. From the beginning, his narrative frames the attempt as a generational story – as succeeding where his father had admitted defeat, ‘to preserve to the Family … the undisputed palm of pre-eminence in the practical application of Æerostation’. Setting out from the Cavalry Barracks, Portobello, on 22 June 1817, Sadler’s six-hour flight appears to have been as straightforward as his father’s was dramatic, leaving him able to immerse himself in the spectacular panoramic views from the air: ‘seated at ease and security in the middle regions of a calm and serene Atmosphere … enjoying at one glance the opposite Shores of Ireland and Wales, with the entire circumference of the Isle of Man’.

Some three hours later, Sadler landed safely at Holyhead where the welcoming party included the notable sea captain John Macgregor Skinner: ‘Within a quarter of Seven o’clock, I was a little to the Southward of the Light-house on Holyhead, when perceiving a suitable place on which to alight, I in a few minutes, opened the Valve, when the Balloon descending, a current of Air brought me at once within a short distance of the spot which I had selected, and the grappling Iron touching the Earth, the Balloon remained stationary, at within Twelve feet of the ground: the Evening was serenely calm, and a number of persons having assembled to aid me at the moment of descent, it was effected in a manner the most successful … at five minutes after Seven o’clock I trod on the shores of Wales, the first Æronaut who had successfully accomplished the passage of the Irish Channel’.

Sadler also used his narrative as an opportunity to reflect on the place of aeronautics and atmospheric science in contemporary scientific knowledge. Whereas by 1817 the fields of chemistry, mineralogy and electricity were increasingly well-understood, air science lagged behind, Sadler argued. His narrative stresses that the air ‘alone remains comparatively unexplored’, going on to set out how aspects of atmospheric science defined by balloon travel – not least across the Irish Sea – might be developed and used in the future.