In June 1871 the topic of balloon flight was on everyone’s lips in Adelaide after Thomas Gale (1841–84), an American aeronaut, announced his intention of ascending in his ‘machine’ called the ‘Young Australian’ at 4pm on Tuesday the 20th – the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. After a failed attempt, Gale achieved his feat four days later.

A first attempt

Gale proposed first to ascend from the grounds of the Exhibition Building, North Terrace. The Southern Argus reported that on 20 June ‘the Park Lands and every available spot in the neighbourhood of the balloon, and from which a view of the ascent could be obtained, was besieged with human beings’. The crowd was estimated to be up to 20 000, about 500 of whom had purchased tickets to watch the feat close up. However, after more than seven hours of filling with gas, the balloon was still only half inflated and refused to float. Tickets were returned to those who had bought them, while ‘the public outside, who had been waiting in great expectancy for some hours, regarded themselves as having been considerably sold [duped]. Of course everybody was disappointed if not disgusted’, said that newspaper. 

A second attempt

Gale announced that the reason for the failure was that the gas pipe was too narrow, so it was proposed that he would make a second attempt on the Saturday, using a thicker pipe. The South Australian Gas Company’s offer to supply this thicker main at the cattle yards at the western end of North Terrace opposite the Newmarket Hotel was accepted. By 2pm on the day, ‘several hundred spectators had paid for admission within the enclosure, and several thousand assembled on North Terrace and the adjoining Park Lands to witness the ascent. Schrader's band was in attendance, discoursing at intervals most excellent music’, recorded the South Australian Register. 

While they waited for enough wind for the flight, the balloon ‘gave a lift’ to 30 or 40 people, one or two at a time, to the height of the 60m tether rope. Among those who thus ventured 'up above the world so high' was a young lady named Lavinia Balford, of Parkside, who gained the honour of being the first female to ascend in a balloon in South Australia, reported the Register. 


After these partial ascents, the full flight took place just after three o'clock. Gale’s companions on the flight were selected in businessman Mr Tyas, theatre owner and impresario Samuel Lazar, and Advertiser reporter Mr DeLissa, although at the last minute DeLissa and Lazar had to leave the basket as it was too heavy. The Register reported that when released the balloon flew towards an opening in the clouds that seemed to have been specially made for its reception. As the balloon passed along the ‘stainless calm cerulean of heaven’ it looked to be almost stationary and then gradually got smaller. In about 30 minutes it ceased to be visible from Adelaide. 

A pleasant and light sensation

Tyas gave an account of his impressions to the Advertiser, noting the speed with which the city disappeared beneath them. ‘After the bustle of the start was over, I looked at my watch, which gave 26 or 27 minutes past 3 o'clock as the time. I then began to note the instruments, but we were up too short a time to take any observations of value. As soon as we got up and had time to look around us, I saw nothing but one dark mass of reddened clouds in all directions. I observed the bay in the distance with the white foam washing against the shore; but the thickness of the weather interfered with anything like a good view. I could see the Semaphore and the entrance to the Port Creek, but at the distance we were could not distinguish the masts of the shipping, and the Gawler coast was obscured.’  

Despite the limitations of the weather, Tyas was enchanted with his experience. ‘The most curious feature of all was that the whole country lay beneath us like a map, and Adelaide looked a perfect square, and like a well laid-out kitchen garden, the buildings everywhere appearing to resemble dolls’ houses.’ After only a few minutes it was time to come to land, as they had no ballast to shed to enable the climb over the Hills. Mr Gale deployed the valve to bring the balloon down, and the balloon ‘descended with great velocity and struck the side of the hill, the balloon lying right over, but fortunately, having held to the hoop, we did not feel the shock much. The machine tried to rise and dragged us a little way up the hill; but Mr. Gale, who retained a marvellous self-possession, kept his hand upon the valve-rope, and counselled me to hold on and not leave the balloon —instructions which I was careful to obey.’  

Dramatically, the balloon continued to drag up the hill, but was fortunately met by a strong gully breeze, which checked its upward progress. The grapnel had caught in the root of a gumtree, and so Gale and Tyas found themselves resting on a bald hill near the estate of Mrs Fox, of Marybank, about ten kilometres (six miles) from town. They had been aloft for less than 20 minutes. 

Several men and boys came to assist and helped untie and pack up the balloon. Mr. Alford, of the Glynde Hotel drove up to collect the aeronauts, and they were met at that establishment by their friends, to great acclaim. A few weeks later Lazar took his appointed flight with Gale, and wrote in the Register that he ‘experienced not the slightest feeling of sickness or giddiness, but rather a pleasant and light sensation … The balloon does not revolve, but feels entirely stationary; the earth and all objects below seem to be receding’. He threw out several copies of the Register to mark their route. At the end of the flight the basket touched down in a landing as soft ‘as if it had been let down from a crane’. Their final location was near Thorndon Park Reservoir where coincidentally Mr Tyas was one of the locals who rushed to help detach the basket and fold up the balloon. Lazar was very impressed by his experience, and wrote that anyone who had ‘a taste for the sublime and beautiful could not do better than take an aerial trip with Mr Gale’. 

Over the next few weeks Thomas Gale took many more passengers up in ‘Young Australian’, including dignitaries and members of the press. Gale’s aerial ascent opened the way for many similar events to take place in Adelaide’s Park Lands. Within ten years there were a multitude of balloonists, with athletes making parachute jumps from the baskets, high wire acts and other feats of daring in flight. Gale settled in Adelaide and married his female aeronaut, Lavinia, at Christmas 1871. They lived in Parkside for the rest of his life. 

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South Australian Advertiser, 26 June 1871, ‘The balloon ascent’, p3

South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail, 15 July 1871, ‘The balloon ascent’, p6

Southern Argus, 23 June 1871, ‘General notes’, p3

South Australian Register, 11 November 1884, ‘Family notices’, p4