In man’s quest to become airborne, the first victories were won with balloons, and 1783 was the year of miracles.
As with the invention of printing, the Chinese really were the prime movers, although no one in Europe knew that until much later. As early as the 3rd Century AD, the Chinese were using small paper balloons with suspended fire sources, known as Kongming lanterns, for both festive and military signaling purposes. (Of course, the entire history of man in the air would continue to have a strong military component.)
European priests were a later group of innovators. In the late 17th Century, the Italian Jesuit, Francesco Lana, theorized that a “flying boat” could be lifted by spheres of copper foil that had been vacuumized. This was not quite practical, but Lana was on the right track in thinking about vessels rising in air by being lighter than air. He was presciently worried about the military implications of his concept: “Iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurled from a great height.”
The Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated a small model hot-air balloon for King John V of Portugal and his court on August 9, 1709. But knowledge of this demonstration was not widely disseminated outside the Portuguese-speaking world.
With the 1766 recognition by British scientist Henry Cavendish of hydrogen as a gaseous element only 1/10 as heavy as air, other scientists such as the Scotsman Joseph Black and the Frenchman Jacques Charles (1746-1823) inferred that a lighter-than-air hydrogen-filled balloon would probably fly.
Charles enlisted the aid of a pair of engineering brothers, Anne-Jean Robert (1758-1820) and Nicolas-Louis Robert (1760-1820), to help him build such a balloon. Their balloons would be made of silk varnished with liquid rubber.
But Les Freres Robert were the not the only brothers in on this chase. Enter the Montgolfiers, Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Etienne (1745-1899). When you consider the later Wright Brothers, the prominence of brother acts in the history of aviation remains a curious fact!
Like the Wrights, the Montgolfiers were tinkerers and enthusiasts; compared to the Charles-Robert team, their command of the science involved was a little on the sketchy side. They figured out from observation that heated air rises, but thought that the smoke from the necessary fires was creating a special substance they brand-consciously dubbed “Mongolfier Gas.” The fact that heated air was lighter than unheated air initially escaped them.
The two teams, one exploring the possibilities of hydrogen balloons and the other hot-air balloons, both kept at their work intensely in the same time-frame. This pattern would be repeated with developments in heavier-than-air flight a century later; the “first to…” designation for many of those forward leaps is still intensely disputed, and even the Wrights’ “first to fly in a controlled, manned airplane” claim does not escape entirely without challengers. Many inventors around the world were working furiously on aviation in 1903 (and for the half-century before that).
Fortunately for historians though, the progress of ballooning in 1783 is well-documented and dated, and it was all happening in France.
The Montgolfiers had been born into and continued to work in the paper manufacturing industry, so they constructed their balloons of paper encased in sackcloth – although given the heating involved, this seems like a bad idea to us. Their balloons did not yet have portable, attached heaters; they were launched from on top of fiery pits.
Working in obscurity in Annonay in Southeast France, the Montgolfiers conducted experiments from late 1782 on, and felt ready to give a public demonstration in the Annonay town square on June 4, 1783. The balloon successfully rose to a height of about 6,000 feet, creating a sensation.
King Louis XVI got wind of this development and summoned the brothers to Paris, although only the slick Etienne went; Joseph was geeky and socially awkward.
Jacques Charles and the Roberts were also galvanized by the news of the Annonay launch, especially as they mistakenly believed that the Montgolfiers were employing their beloved hydrogen. They got a move on to launch their own balloon.
It was only a pipsqueak compared to the Mongolfiers’ June balloon (35 cubic meters as compared to 790 cubic meters). And it was confoundedly difficult to generate even that much hydrogen; it took four days of pouring sulfuric acid onto scrap iron, and feeding the resulting gas by lead pipes into the balloon (sort of the world’s biggest chem-lab experiment).
To raise the necessary money and the public’s awareness level, Jacques Charles’ good friend, geologist Bathelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, spearheaded a subscription effort – the first Kickstarter campaign? – which allowed contributors to get a close-up view of the launch action. Benjamin Franklin, then in France as ambassador from the brand-new United States, was among the subscribers.
The crowd got much larger than Saint-Fond bargained, however, as the days of filling the balloon wore on and progress reports were issued to the eager would-be spectators. It became clear that the original launch location in the Place des Victoires would be inadequate, so the balloon was moved four kilometers away to the Champ de Mars, where an assembly of 400,000 watched the balloon ascend on August 27.
It traveled quite a ways, landing 21 kilometers distant in the small village of Gonesse. In terms of 18th Century publicity, that might as well have been a thousand miles, because the local peasants had no idea what this flying contraption was and interpreted it as some kind of threatening monster – much as some Japanese in the 1850s thought that Commodore Perry’s black steamships were “giant dragons.” The Gonesse residents attacked the balloon with rocks, pitchforks, and knives, and finally carried off the corpse.
Now there was ballooning excitement every few weeks. The next major development came on September 19, when the Montgolfiers sent the first animals skyward in a basket attached to the largest balloon yet (1,060 cubic meters) – a duck, a rooster, and a sheep named Mont-au-ciel (“climb to the sky”), the unsung predecessors of Laika the Space Dog who orbited the earth for the Soviet Union in 1957. All three animals survived the eight-minute flight, although the rooster was a little roughed up; apparently the inconsiderate sheep sat on him.
Clearly, sending people up was the next step. But the danger! – perhaps, King Louis XVI thought, the first men in the sky should be condemned criminals, just in case? The scientist and Montgolfier associate Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier argued otherwise; to be the first fliers was too great an historic honor to be awarded to mere miscreants.
And in fact, Pilatre de Rozier got the glory. After experiments with tethered human flight throughout October, he and the Marquis Francoise d’Arlandes made the first free manned balloon flight on November 21, traveling five to ten miles (accounts vary) in 25 minutes. They landed in a vineyard amidst another group of upset peasants, but were ready with champagne to offer to them; bubbly and balloons were associated ever after.
Pilatre de Rozier was responsible for another, less desirable flight milestone in 1785, when a balloon he was attempting to pilot across the English Channel blew up, making him and his co-pilot the first aeronautical casualties.
Not to be outdone by the Montgolfiers, Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon on December 1. To show that the rivalry was a friendly one, Joseph Mongolfier was invited to release a tiny “pilot balloon” before the main balloon, to help Charles see which way the wind was blowing.
Charles and Robert stayed aloft for two hours, went to a height of 550 meters, and traveled some 30 miles, once again landing in a field. Although it was getting dark, and the hydrogen was running low, Charles was in such good spirits that he insisted on going up again briefly by himself.
It was the last time he ever flew, for the experience rattled him. He went higher than anyone had ever done, about 3,000 meters, felt intense ear pain, and in a bit of a panic, vented gas and tossed ballast, landing safely but quite disoriented.
The last of these significant early flights happened on January 19, 1784, when the Montgolfiers sent up a 2,000 cubic meter monster balloon with seven people in the basket. One of them was unanticipated, a young man named Fontaine who jumped in at the last minute, becoming the first aerial stowaway.
Ballooning was tried in every country within a short period of years after that. It only remains to say – you saw this coming – that the first military use of the new balloons came during the Napoleonic Wars in 1794. War has never been out of the air since.