The initial mass enthusiasm for balloons following their invention in 1783 soon gave way to ironic skepticism. After all, critics said, what was the point of rising up into the air if you had no control over the apparatus?
As such, balloons became powerful images for satires. Not only did their mechanics offer moralizing lessons ("what goes up must come down," for instance), but the technology itself started to be associated with swindlers and hustlers who would advertise a magnificent ascent that would then barely lift off—frustrating paying spectators who would sometimes break out in riots. England, in particular, was much more skeptical of the balloon than France, and its thriving industry of satirical prints did not lose a beat.
Titled "The Political Balloon; or, The Fall of the East India Stock," this print came out in late 1783 (just a few months after the balloon's invention). In 1783, the East India Company (a British joint-stock company founded in 1600 to trade in the East), was scarred by corruption scandals and in dire financial straits. That same year, Charles James Fox (a Whig politician and opponent of King George III) introduced a bill to bring the East India Company (EIC) under more direct supervision of the Parliament. The bill passed in the Commons, but due to pressure from King George III, it failed to get through the House of Lords.
"The Political Balloon" depicts Fox sitting on top of a balloon in the shape of the Earth, with the Indian Ocean facing the observer (one can also see the labels "Madras" and "Gold Mines"). Holding a "Bill to Reform India Affairs," Fox glibly states:
"Thanks to my Auspicious Stars, for now I see the Gold & Silver mines before me; 'tis this I am Soaring for."
Below the East India balloon we see three men falling as coins pour out of their pockets. The one one the left seems to represent an EIC director, the one in the middle Warren Hastings (the Governor-General of Bengal), and the one on the right an EIC shareholder. From left to right, their speech bubbles read:
"If the Nation knew his Treacherous heart as well as me, the directors woud be continued."
"What my Governorship gone 'ere I had made or unmade one Nabob? Oh perdition Seize that wiley Fox."
"Must I forever be hurl'd from such pretty pickings? wou'd I cou'd grapple in my fall the author of it."
The satire thus uses the image of an ascending balloon to attack both Fox and those he was challenging within the EIC, more than implying that all of them were engaged in a speculative battle over the company for personal profits.
The scenario would have likely prompted an informed observer to think of the South Sea Bubble. Established in 1711 as a joint-stock company like the EIC, the South Sea Company was granted a monopoly over trade in South America in return for underwriting the British debt that had grown significantly because of a series of wars. Because of Iberian control of South America, the South Sea Company's trade in the region was mediocre at best, but to inflate stocks its directors spread rumors of riches struck by the company in the region. In January 1720, South Sea Company stock stood at £128. As the joint-stock company and government debt became more and more intertwined, and as the rumors of riches in the South Atlantic proliferated, the stock surged, reaching £1,050 by the end of June. But in July investors started to dump the stock, leading to a massive sell-off. The bubble had burst, and by September, the company's stock price stood at a mere £175. It was a financial event with global repercussions, not unlike the subprime mortgage crisis that shook the global economy a few years ago.
As mentioned, because of how the balloon worked (it had to be inflated to ascend, but as it lost gas would have to fall back to the ground), and because there were also many instances of profiteers trying to make a quick buck through balloon ascents, the technology became an especially apt metaphor to satirize financial speculation schemes. "The Political Balloon; or, The Fall of the East India Stock" was just one of many satires that came out in the late eighteenth century doing just that.