The First Air Raid Happened When Austria Dropped Bombs on Venice from Pilotless Hot-Air Balloons (1849)

We sur­round the phrase “ahead of its time” with a mys­ti­cal aura. But just because an idea shows up ear­li­er than we expect does not mean it was ever a good idea for human progress. Take, for exam­ple, the idea to rain incen­di­ary devices on the heads of civil­ian pop­u­la­tions in wartime. Recent iter­a­tions of this tech­nol­o­gy — unmanned drones sur­gi­cal­ly bomb­ing wed­dings and funer­als — may be an improve­ment over Hiroshi­ma or napalm-hap­py heli­copter pilots like Apoc­a­lypse Now’s Bill Kil­go­re. But drones have not, there­by, ren­dered the nuclear option or trig­ger-hap­py death from above obso­lete, or made mass civil­ian casu­al­ties less trag­ic and unnec­es­sary, com­par­isons of raw num­bers aside.

Drone bomb­ing is one of those ideas that showed up ahead of its time — at the very first use of aer­i­al bomb­ing of any kind. Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cles (UAVs) were launched in the ser­vice of a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion 30 years before Edi­son har­nessed elec­tric­i­ty for home use.

In 1849, remote pilot­ing was hard­ly pos­si­ble. But it was pos­si­ble to launch a fleet of hot air bal­loons loaded with explo­sives from a ship and send them in the gen­er­al direc­tion of a tar­get. That’s what the Aus­tri­an army did — twice — over Venice, in a cam­paign to recap­ture the city when its cit­i­zens rebelled against impe­r­i­al rule and built their own repub­lic. Luck­i­ly for Venice, the first use of naval air pow­er was also the least effec­tive.

The bal­loons “car­ried 33 pounds of explo­sives,” writes Monash Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Rus­sell Naughton, “set with a half-hour time fuse, and troops scur­ried around with them to launch them into the prop­er wind cur­rents.” The idea for the bom­bard­ment came from an Aus­tri­an artillery lieu­tenant named Franz von Uchatius and was ini­tial­ly car­ried out on July 12, 1849. This attempt “failed because the wind was not in Austria’s favor,” writes Weapons and War­fare, quot­ing from a con­tem­po­rary account in Time mag­a­zine:

The bal­loons appeared to rise to about 4,500 ft. Then they explod­ed in midair or fell into the water, or, blown by a sud­den south­east wind, sped over the city and dropped on the besiegers. Vene­tians, aban­don­ing their homes, crowd­ed into the streets and squares to enjoy the strange spec­ta­cle. … When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explo­sion, all clapped and shout­ed. Applause was great­est when the bal­loons blew over the Aus­tri­an forces and explod­ed, and in such cas­es the Vene­tians added cries of ‘Bra­vo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’

More spec­ta­cle than threat, the bal­loon bombs might have been aban­doned as a failed exper­i­ment, but the Aus­tri­ans were per­sis­tent; they had besieged the city, deter­mined to sub­due it. Anoth­er attack on August 22 seems to have also done more dam­age to the Aus­tri­ans than their tar­gets. Although the bal­loons could not be pilot­ed, the det­o­na­tion of their charges was con­trolled, Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can wrote that year, “by elec­tro mag­net­ism by means of a long iso­lat­ed cop­per wire with a large gal­van­ic bat­tery placed on the shore. The bomb falls per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly, and explodes on reach­ing the ground” … the­o­ret­i­cal­ly.

It is not clear from the sources how many bombs were launched. Num­bers range from 2 to 200. In any case, the bomb­ing would have lit­tle effect on end­ing the siege, which went on for five more months after­ward, and they received lit­tle notice in the press. They did, how­ev­er, have the effect after their sec­ond appear­ance of pro­duc­ing “extreme ter­ror,” the British Morn­ing Chron­i­cle report­ed, doc­u­ment­ing the first appear­ance of “shock and awe.” And ter­ror was “clear­ly what was intend­ed,” Brett Hol­man writes at Airmind­ed, rather than a strate­gic offen­sive. “The bombs used were filled with shrap­nel, which isn’t much use for any­thing but killing and maim­ing peo­ple. So there were few qualms on the part of the Aus­tri­ans about tar­get­ing and killing civil­ians.” They were sim­ply killed more effi­cient­ly with con­ven­tion­al artillery and star­va­tion.

The exam­ple of the Aus­tri­ans was not fol­lowed by oth­er armies, who weren’t eager to have explo­sive bal­loons blow back on their own lines. The idea of bomb­ing cities from the air, writes Hol­man, “had to be invent­ed all over again. Which it was, of course, and Venice’s next air raid was on 24 May 1915.”

Just last year, the entire city shut down — “even planes were barred from fly­ing to and from Venice’s Mar­co Polo Air­port,” DW report­ed — as author­i­ties led an effort to “remove and defuse a World War II-era bomb” on what local media dubbed “Bom­ba Day.”

via Mari­na Ama­r­al

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Venice’s New $7 Bil­lion Flood Defense Sys­tem in Action

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

A Drone’s Eye View of the Ruins of Pom­peii

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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