It may had become difficult to separate fact from fantasy on what inspired the Montgolfier brothers to make mankind’s first flight, but was it their own effort when they successfully did back in 1783?
By: Ringo Bones
It maybe quite understandable for something that happened over 200 years ago that it has since become quite difficult to separate fact from fantasy on how the Montgolfier brothers got into the field of ballooning that eventually led to humanity’s first successful flight into the wild blue yonder. The most popular version of the story has it that Joseph Montgolfier – elder of the brothers – was idly standing into his fireplace one evening in 1782, watching the smoke curl lazily up the chimney. The tale goes on to say that Joseph borrowed a piece of silk from his housekeeper and fashioned it into an open-bottomed bag. Then, holding the bag above the fire, he let it fill with heated air and smoke. When he released it, the bag rose to the ceiling.
After this initial success, the Montgolfier brothers tried other, more ambitious experiments using larger balloons. Within six months, utilizing an outdoor bonfire as a source of heat, they had sent a balloon aloft to a height of a little more than a mile, a feat that was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. Little did the brothers know that they actually invented the concept of hot air ballooning which changed very little even today.
News of the Montgolfier flights reached King Louis XVI, who ordered a command performance at Versailles. For the occasion, the brothers built an elaborately decorated balloon and, as an added attraction, decided to find whether animal life could survive in the upper air. A sheep, a duck and a rooster were sent aloft from Versailles on September 19, 1783, in a tub-shaped basket suspended from the balloon. The flight lasted eight minutes and the balloon traveled a mile and a half. On landing, the animal passengers suffered no ill effects. The Montgolfier brothers immediately set about building a man-carrying balloon.
The new model was provided with its own airborne furnace for sustained flight. It took two months to get the balloon ready and several trials were held with the balloon tethered to the ground. Finally the Montgolfier brothers decided that everything was ready.
News of the impending flight had spread throughout France and excitement ran high. King Louis XVI himself took an active interest and even offered to provide two condemned criminals to serve as passengers. At this, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a young historian and a ballooning enthusiast, became indignant.
“Shall vile criminals have the honor of first rising into the sky?” he stormed. “I myself shall go!”
The dream as old as history became fact on November 21, 1783. On that day two Frenchmen, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and another volunteer, the Marquis d’Arlandes - a.k.a. François Laurent d'Arlandes, flew over Paris in a balloon, travelling five and a half miles in 25 minutes. At first it lifted very slowly and Rozier began stoking the fire with straw. The balloon began to ascend more rapidly, but at the same time several small fires broke out in its fabric; the two “aeronauts” raced around the gallery with wet sponges, extinguishing the flames. Once the fires were out, the remainder of the ride was sheer exaltation as the balloon sailed over the rooftops of Paris for 25 minutes before it landed safely five and a half miles away. For the first time in the history of the world, mankind has achieved free flight.
Ten days after the Montgolfier brothers’ first ever manned balloon flight came the second manned balloon flight. This was under the same Parisian sky, some 200,000 French citizens witnessed the pioneering French physicist Jacques Charles and a companion made a two-hour 27-mile flight in a hydrogen-filled balloon. They both landed safely. But when Charles’ companion climbed out of the gondola, he automatically lightened it; the balloon with Charles still in it, soared back up into the air, inadvertently making Charles the first ever human being to make the first solo balloon flight. It was now dark, and the balloon climbed to a record height of 9,000 feet. By the time Charles got back to earth, he was so shaken that he swore never to set foot on another balloon ever again. Despite Jacques Charles’ defection, the ballooning craze inevitably swept all of Europe.
Within a decade, other balloon flights had been made in England, Germany, the United States, Belgium and the Netherlands. Under a Union Jack painted balloon, the Italian diplomat Vincenzo Lunardi ascends over London in a gaudy gondola in 1785. A year earlier, Lunardi made the first ever manned balloon flight in England.
An early French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard waved the French tricolor flag over Brussels back in 1786. His rig included two balloons and a parachute. Blanchard earlier had shared the first English Channel crossing on a balloon with John Jeffries, an American doctor. Later, in 1793, Blanchard introduced balloon-flying to America at Philadelphia. The first ever equestrian ascent – i.e. riding a balloon while on horseback – was made by Pierre Testu-Brissy over Paris back in 1798. As we observe our 230th Anniversary of the first ever manned balloon flight this year, it seems that manned ballooning have never gone out of style since it began.