In 1812, at Lynmouth, a coastal village in the south of England, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley spent hours gluing together strips of silk to make a hot-air balloon. He fastened a wick soaked in spirit, and then carefully attached the globe’s cargo: his radical political manifesto, A Declaration of Rights. Shelley set the wick alight and watched the fragile vessel ascend into the evening sky, until the flame became a small spark.
Inspired by the launch, Shelley wrote a poem, “To a Balloon, laden with Knowledge.” The “Bright ball of flame” may soon “Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom,” but the radiant idea of liberty it carried would be “unquenchable,” he wrote. In the end, however, Shelley’s toy balloons were a tiny flare set against the dark ignorance of the age.
Two centuries later, in 2013, the tech giant Google launched its own balloons laden with knowledge. The idea is to build a fleet of thousands of high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet service in remote areas of the Earth. It’s a crazy undertaking, hence the name “Project Loon” is appropriate. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have long shared Shelley’s fascination with balloons, although the tech maestros’ ambitions rise much higher. “What if there was a way to light up the entire globe?” asks Google in a promotional video for the project. “And finally make all of the world’s information accessible to all of the world’s people?”
Is Project Loon the fulfillment of Shelley’s dream: the advancement of learning and “A ray of courage to the opprest and poor”?
Perhaps, but with some caveats. The Google balloons are basically floating cell towers, which can relay a signal to someone on the ground who has a cell phone or other device. They fly at an altitude of 18-25 kilometers—the edge of near space, or twice as high as commercial aircraft. Google aims to partner with telecommunications businesses around the world. The local firms have the customer network and the cellular spectrum; Google brings the balloons to the party. Mike Cassidy, the head of Loon, told a conference this summer that one balloon could provide connectivity to an area of 5,000 square kilometers—bigger than Rhode Island.
Naturally, Google departed from Shelley’s design. Instead of silk, the Google balloons are made of…