Flight Of Fancy

08 08 ballon 1Today I want to talk about balloons. I mentioned the Montgolfier brothers historic flight back in June. I assumed theirs was the first hot air balloon, but I have found a prior claim. On 8th August 1709 a Jesuit priest called Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão demonstrated his hot air balloon to King John V of Portugal.

Bartolomeu was born in the Portuguese colony of Santos in Brazil in 1685. He was educated in a seminary in Cachoeira and there, sometime before 1699, he invented a machine that would carry water up hill. He was granted a patent by the King of Portugal in 1707. It was the first patent to be granted to a Brazilian.

He sailed to Portugal in 1708 and managed to get an audience with the King and Queen. He asked to be granted another patent, this time for what google translate tells us was an instrument for walking in the air which is delightful, but probably not quite right. It was granted in April 1709.

08 08 balloon 2Bartolomeu was pretty secretive about his plans but everyone was pretty interested. The only person who had access to the place where he was working on his invention was a fourteen year old boy called Francisco who was his student. Francisco made a rather fanciful drawing of a flying machine which is really nothing like the balloon that Bartolomeu was working on. The priest didn’t want anyone else stealing his idea so the two decided to publish the drawing, just to throw everyone off the scent. The drawing, which shows an unlikely bird-shaped contraption, suggests that it was propelled by magnets and could be kept afloat using bellows. The ruse worked pretty well. Even his Wikipedia entry says this is what he was building.

He demonstrated his balloon at the Royal Palace in Lisbon in August of that year. It relied on some kind of heat source to make it rise. He made several attempts, some of which caught fire and at least one was knocked down by servants because they feared (probably with good reason) that is was going to set the curtains on fire. The most successful flight was on 8th August when the balloon rose right up to the ceiling before floating gently down. There seems to have been another demonstration in October which was witnessed by several people including a cardinal who later become Pope Innocent XIII.

Bartolomeu’s balloon idea did not really catch on. People were worried that they might fly away and set fire to things. Really the same sort of concerns we have about sky lanterns today. He may have come up against some opposition from the Inquisition as a result of his godless flying machines. He certainly moved to Spain rather suddenly. By the time the French came to investigate the story after the Montgolfier flight of 1783 all that was left of his work were Fransisco’s drawing and a few people who remembered that he had been given the surname Voador (Flying Man).


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