The Right to Fly

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Ballooning and photography pioneer Félix Nadar argues the case for aviation in his 1866 The Right to Fly

Ballooning and photography pioneer Félix Nadar argues the case for aviation in his 1866 The Right to Fly


The 1866 original carries a preface by George Sandis. Nadar dedicated the English translation published that March to the Society for the Study of Aerial Navigation led by James Glaisher

The 1866 original carries a preface by George Sand. Nadar dedicated the English translation published that March to the Society for the Study of Aerial Navigation led by James Glaisher


Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – blogs on aeronautical pioneer Félix Nadar whose 1866 book “The Right to Fly” is one of the latest titles in our Found on The Shelves series, published by Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary.

A successful pioneer needs to have three qualities: vision, courage, and a nervous energy. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910), known as Félix Nadar, had them in abundance.  He successfully pioneered new approaches in the fields of photography and marketing but when it came to achieving his dream of being in control when travelling across the skies success eluded him. The Right to Fly is a manifesto borne of this frustration, an angry cry against those who ridiculed his aeronautic vision.

Félix was the unconventional eldest son of unconventional parents: Tournachon senior was a Lyonnaise liberal publisher who did not marry the mother of his children until his first-born was six years old.

The child who walked with a slight limp due to complications at birth grew into a tall young man with long limbs and a wild mane of bright red hair. He began medical training but the Tournachons’ shaky finances took a turn for the worse when the father died and the family publishing busine

ss went bankrupt. The outspoken 16 year old with a penchant for whimsical humour had to abandon his studies in Lyon and find the means to support his widowed mother and his younger brother, Adrien. He moved to Paris, where he made a valiant attempt to resume his medical training while earning a living as a journalist and cartoonist.  It seems that his interest in medicine, though genuine, was more romantic than practical and in the end the lure of the publishing world proved stronger than the pull of the anatomy lessons.

During this period he began to sign his work “Nadar” and the explanations for this pseudonym vary. It may have originated in the literary circles that he was moving in where he rubbed shoulders with Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire and where it seems it was the fashion for bohemian young writers to add the ending ‘dar’ to many words, thus Tournachon became Tournadar and was later abbreviated to Nadar. Another version of the story is that his satirical accuracy earned him the nickname “tourne à dard” (the one who stings or, literally, twists the dart) which he first shortened to “n à dard” and finally to “Nadar.”

Aged only 19 this enterprising youth started a magazine called Le Livre d’Or. Despite including contributions from friends like Gérard de Nerval, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas publication ceased after only three issues. He then focussed on his caricatures which were proving much more successful and profitable but in 1848 he joined a French legion made up mainly of Polish émigrés and their sons. Under the name “Nadarsky” he marched off with 500 other men to fight Prussian rule in Poland. After a few misadventures culminating in a failure to even reach Poland he returned to France where he had a date with the medium that would make him a household name.

In an effort to make his fairly useless brother financially independent Nadar paid for him to train as a photographer and set up a studio for him. Adrien lacked both talent and business acumen and the venture was a failure until Nadar himself took it over. When Nadar said “photography is a marvellous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that excites the most astute minds — and one that can be practiced by any imbecile” was he referring to Adrien?

At first he was only interested in photography as a quick means of capturing a likeness that he could later use as the basis for a caricature but he soon discovered a real passion and flair for it and among his wide artistic circle he found a wealth of charismatic subjects. He took a medium that was in its infancy and understood its potential to create intimate portraits that showed the true nature of the sitter, without flattery or unnecessary props. He took definitive portraits of the most famous politicians, musicians, writers, artists and intellectuals of 1850s Paris.  Among the celebrities who passed through his little studio were George Sand, Jules Verne, Berlioz, Rossini, Delcroix and Sarah Bernhardt.

By 1860 his commercial success was such that he moved to a much larger studio with his name in enormous bright lights emblazoned across the façade and all of fashionable Paris flocked to this new landmark. Nadar took advantage of the move from the Daguerrotype to the collodion process, which made it possible to make multiple prints easily and had his assistants take most of the portraits. This freed him up to explore more interesting possibilities.

He was the first to use artificial light in photography and armed with lamps which he designed and patented in 1861 he took his camera into the catacombs and sewers of Paris. These eerie underground photographs are all the stranger because they required very long exposures and Nadar, ever the creative problem-solver, chose to populate them with mannequins instead of real people.  His precursor of the modern flash was in fact the second photographic patent he filed. In 1858 he had ascended in a hot-air balloon, camera in hand, to photograph Paris from above. Soon after he patented aerial photography and began what would prove to be a ruinous obsession.

His experiments in aerial photography convinced him that the future of flight lay in heavier-than-air machines: being lighter than air, hot air balloons were at the mercy of the lightest breeze and impossible to control in strong winds. He founded the Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Navigation by Heavier-than-air Machines, with himself as President and Jules Verne as Secretary. Although it quickly attracted many members, Nadar understood that to achieve his dream of a sky “studded with barques travelling with such rapidity as to humiliate the Ocean and all the locomotives of the Earth!” he would need an enormous amount of funding. He decided that a series of publicity stunts using the largest hot-air balloon the world had ever seen would be the perfect way of raising money for the development of aviation. He invested his fortune in creating “Le Géant“ (the Giant), which had a volume of nearly 212,000 cubic feet (6000 m³) and carried a two-storey wicker cottage with capacity for 25 passengers.  On 4 October 1863 Nadar’s Giant took to the air from the Champ-de-Mars among enormous crowds that were kept under control by specially designed barriers (another of Nadar’s inventions). The plan was to travel across Europe but a malfunctioning valve brought the balloon down after a disappointing 25 miles.  The second (and nearly fatal) ascent took place a fortnight later. This time Nadar, his wife and his passengers, reached Hannover where a strong wind pulled them down and dragged them helplessly for miles during which the balloon had a very close shave with a moving railway train. The Giant was repaired, brought to Britain, and put on display for paying crowds in Crystal Palace later that year, while Nadar and his fellow aeronauts were still recovering from their injuries.   In 1866 Nadar wrote Le Droit au Vol (The Right to Fly) where he challenged the scientific establishment and made his case for heavier-than-air flight. It contains a preface by his friend George Sand and was published by Jules Hetzel, who in 1848 had hired Nadar as secret agent, persuading him to make a second attempt to reach Poland and report back on the movements of Russian troops.

Nadar took to the air in his titanic balloon several more times before selling it in 1867 but despite risking life and limb and attracting huge crowds and international press coverage the whole enterprise was a financial failure. His ballooning expertise however was put to very good use in 1870 when, at Nadar’s suggestion, a besieged Paris relied on a fleet of balloons to fly over the Prussian lines and re-establish contact with the outside world.

Today Nadar is remembered as one of the early masters of photography, the icon behind the Prix Nadar, awarded annually to outstanding books of photography edited in France. He is also remembered as the man who lent his by then empty photographic studio to the historic first exhibition of Impressionist paintings in 1874. Sadly, he did not live to see his dream of flying machines realised although in 1909, only a year before his death he was delighted to learn that his compatriot, Louis Blériot had flown across the English Channel in a monoplane and sent him a cable thanking him “for the joy with which your triumph fills this antediluvian of the heavier-than-air machine.”

The man who provided the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon and for the character of the French adventurer Michel Ardan (an anagram of Nadar) in From the Earth to the Moon could arguably be said not to have had much direct impact or influence on the development of flying machines.  Yet, as George Sand wrote in her preface to The Right to Fly, “Every light has its precursory dawn, and he who perceives the one may predict the other.” Nadar was not only aviation’s precursory dawn, he was also one of the few who could predict the coming light when many still groped in the dark.