With the exception of monarchs, hardly anyone would have received mass recognition by their face in the late eighteenth century. Yet engravings of Sadler were big-selling, mass-produced items. Even rarer for a celebrity of the age were his humble origins.
An uneducated pastry cook, he consorted with nobility, admirals and Cabinet ministers at a time when social mobility was unknown; he was even granted an audience with the Queen. Adored by the British public for fully fifty years, he is perhaps best summed up by the Daily Chronicle: ‘Sadler is known from the humble cabbage seller to the mightiest of lords.’
Part of Sadler’s appeal as a self-taught chemist, inventor and engineer was undoubtedly enhanced by his image as an old-fashioned, derring-do daredevil. Frequently taking off in force 7 gales, crashing into hills and plopping into seas, Sadler regularly survived basket-splintering crashes in extraordinary acts of courage. Twice he had to be rescued from the freezing waters of open seas when fortuitously spotted by passing ships.
Fanned by Sadler’s achievements, Balloonomania duly gripped a nation increasingly hysterical about human flight. For several decades, the country went balloon crazy – if you wanted to sell anything in this period of British history then adding a balloon motif to your product was mandatory: from snuff boxes to ladies’ under garments and bidets.
Yet Sadler maintained an enquiring scientific mind throughout such celebrity status. Measuring instruments and apparatus accompanied him on all ascents. He was the first to measure “sky air” and decipher its components – an unknown at a time when some warned that he risked crashing into heaven! Wherever he went, his balloon launches would regularly attract an audience in excess of 30,000 people. Contemporary newspaper reports confirm that entire towns and cities would close every shop, school and factory for the day in Sadler’s honour.