Today, I am celebrating the first public demonstration of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. There were sixteen Montgolfier siblings. I don’t know much about the others but I can say they were, and still are, a family of paper makers. For today though, I shall focus on Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne.
A year earlier, Joseph had been sitting by his fire musing, for some reason, on the fortress of Gibraltar which was impossible to attack by either land or sea. There was laundry drying over the fire and as he watched it billow upward in the rising hot air, he began to wonder whether an air attack might be possible. Joseph was an inventive sort of a chap and he built himself a very thin wooden frame about 3 ft x 3 ft x 4 ft which he covered in taffeta. He put crumpled paper underneath and lit it. The box rose into the air and hit the ceiling. He demonstrated it to his brother Étienne who was extremely impressed and they set about building another three times the size. Before they had even finished filling it with hot air, the contraption floated away. It landed in a field over a mile distant. We don’t know exactly what happened but Étienne tells us that it was destroyed due to the ‘indiscretion of passers by’.
Étienne, who was the more practical of the two, was concerned that someone else might steal their idea and wrote to a friend in Paris asking him to mention it at the Academy of Science. He could see how it could be used to carry messages, goods, even people, relatively cheaply. But he didn’t send any drawings so his friend didn’t know what on earth he was talking about and kept the letter to himself.
Even so, they set about building a much larger model which was spherical in shape and made from sackcloth. They had lined it with paper to help keep the air in and it was made in four pieces which were held together with 1,800 buttons.
On June 4th, a small crowd gathered in their home town of Annonay to witness a large but uninspiring sackcloth bag being strung between two poles. The weather was not good but there was a diocesan assembly in town which meant that there were a lot of important people around. They lit a brazier near the eight foot square opening of the bag. It soon began to fill with air and four men were needed to hold it down with ropes. As soon as they let go the balloon leapt five or six thousand feet into the air and was carried for about a mile and a half. Unfortunately a last minute decision to fasten the brazier beneath the balloon meant that it caught fire when it landed. People working nearby were too frightened of the strange object to put out the fire so it was quickly consumed by the flames. Still, everyone was pretty amazed and the king soon got to hear about it.
On 19th September they were able to demonstrate an even bigger balloon to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette at Versailles. It was made of blue taffeta and decorated in gold with suns and signs of the zodiac. It must have been an incredible sight. Also this balloon was to carry passengers. The king had wanted to launch two criminals but instead the inventors decided on a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. The sheep was chosen because it was the approximate size and weight of a human, the duck because it could fly and wouldn’t come to much harm and the cockerel to see what would happen to a bird that didn’t usually fly much at all. The flight lasted eight minutes, achieved a height of around 1,500 ft, covered about two miles and landed safely.
In October, the first tethered flight was made with a human passenger, and the following month, the first free flight. The balloon travelled around five and a half miles and landed with enough fuel to have flown four or five times the distance. In fact, it landed with so much fuel it almost caught fire. Nevertheless, it was a huge sensation. Engravings were made to commemorate the event. You could buy mantel clocks with balloons painted on the face, crockery decorated with balloons, even balloon-backed chairs. Everyone was very excited, and rightly so.
The following year saw the first ever female aeronaut, so it’s worth celebrating her as well today as we know little else about her, other than the fact that she was the abandoned spouse of a Lyon merchant. She is especially worth celebrating as she was dressed as the goddess Minerva and sang a couple of duets with her co-passenger as they flew. Her name was Élisbeth Thible and her friend was a Monsieur Fleurant. He credited her with the success of the flight as she had been the one who fed the fuel into the firebox all the way.