A Man with an Idea



In the November 27, 1810 edition of the Kingston Gazette, an early Kingston newspaper, a letter from one Absalom Randy was published with some very interesting and far-reaching ideas.

The subject, Messrs. Editors, to which I wish to call the attention of my fellow townsmen, is that of aerostation.– In the year 1783, M. Montgolfein [sic], in consequence of certain experiments, was induced to believe that the idea of constructing a machine calculated to soar in the air, was by no means so visionary or void of utility, as had been generally supposed; the result of long and curious investigation was the present Air Balloon; and I am only astonished, that among the various improving conceptions that are now hourly developing, none of your correspondents have turned their attention to a subject of, in my humble opinion, infinite consequence.

Mr. Randy is referring to the Montgolfier Brothers, who developed the hot-air balloon and practised a series of experiments with it in 1783, culminating in a manned, untethered flight over Paris. Randy’s idea was to use hot-air balloons “in a country like this, where the roads are so extremely bad” for navigation, communication, and transportation. He’s even done his research.

I am credibly informed that the North West Company have it in contemplation to make the experiment upon a large scale: it is computed that the expence of transporting goods to the various posts, and receiving their returns, is not much less than £40,000 Halifax Currency per annum; and, by the introduction of the Balloon system, it is supposed a saving will take place of at least two thirds.

He doesn’t mention how or why using a hot-air balloon will save money – I guess faster transportation just means less snags overall? Anyway, Randy uses this as an example, and prudently expects that we would need to try ballooning out as an experiment first. He also recognizes that it would probably be terrifying for the uninitiated. He writes in an amusingly understated way,

There is nevertheless one danger to be apprehended; “Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit,” when a man finds himself actually raised so far above the level of his fellow creatures, it is difficult to say where his flight may stop.

This seems especially significant when we remember that Randy is writing in 1810, when most people probably never rose any higher than the nearest hill. (“Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit,” by the way, means “No man is wise at all times” according to Google Translate. Sorry, I never took Latin.) Randy suggests putting together various regulations and restrictions on balloon flight so that it remains safe and useful. He states, “I am not without hopes that, in conjunction with others, my project may attract the attention of the legislature.”

However, Randy’s not done yet. He’s got another (totally unrelated) idea, which is about “the disposal of our spare stone,” many years – and probably many fires – before Kingston became the Limestone City. After some calculations relating to the amount of stone in Grindstone Island (by which I assume he is referring to the large American island across from Gananoque) he suggests our excess stone can be used towards “the erection of a college, and the remainder to the improvement of the town at large.” Two centuries later, it’s nice to see how well that idea worked out.

In this letter, Absalom Randy not only looks forward to the importance of aviation in general but predicts the stone-built Kingston that would arise thirty-odd years later. He is also encouraging of a college in Kingston, something which would not be realized until about thirty years later either.

I wish I knew more about Absalom Randy. In another letter to the Kingston Gazette he mentions that his parents were Quakers, and he was obviously well-educated, but that’s all I can tell. At any rate, I enjoyed reading this unusual column written 204 years ago, and am impressed with its optimistic ideas about what was then a very young city. I wonder what would have happened if the legislature had gone with the idea, and ballooning had really taken off? I think Kingston would have had a pretty unique chapter in the history books.



The original column in the Kingston Gazette, on the site Our Ontario Newspapers. Be forewarned, the image transfer is not very good in parts and the text uses the archaic Long S which makes it a little difficult to read.




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