The Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin holds a fine collection of ships, boats, planes and trains but this exhibit, Große Post-Luft-Kugel possesses a special sense of wonder. It’s a model hot air balloon built from a speculative illustration by Balthasar Antoine Dunker (1746-1807) made in 1783, the year in which the Montgolfier Brothers made their first successful flight. Quick to seize on the commercial potential Dunker described a fantastical vision of a postal service balloon with all the facilities of a small town suspended beneath. Defended by massive cannon and equipped with all the necessities of life it was designed for intercontinental mail distribution. Impossible staircases connect the various pods that dangle in space and include a place of worship, a detention centre for offenders and a livestock unit for food production. A massive cask is also provided - whether for wine or ale is not specified. Observation decks enable privileged passengers to enjoy the exhilarating views. A small pilot balloon is attached for the purpose of forward reconnaissance and last-mile deliveries, enabling the mother-ship to continue its high-altitude cruise. All this and more is faithfully translated into an immaculately detailed scale model that recaptures the wonder of powered flight.
Within a year Dunker’s print had been co-opted by an anonymous British printmaker. The anglicised balloon bore an image of the Crown and a British Lion perched on the top, gripped an Admiral’s flag. There’s a copy in the British Museum online collection – the BM classifies it as a satirical print, poking fun at republicanism. To my eyes it looks more like a simple case of plagiarism.