On October 15, 1783 Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier became the first human being to leave the surface of the earth and rise in the air in a man-made contraption. And what a contraption! The enormous hot air balloon that Étienne and his brother Joseph-Michel Montgolfier constructed was seventy-five feet tall and about fifty feet in diameter with a 60,000 cubic foot capacity. It was elaborately decorated in gold and deep blue with Fleur-de-lis, signs of the Zodiac, and suns emblazoned with the face of Louis XVI interlaced with the royal monogram. The balloon rose in the morning sky over Paris on a tether from the workshop where it had been created. A second flight the same day carried to an even greater height—80 feet. Pilâtre de Rozier, a chemist and teacher who had become interested in the experiments.
This is generally cited as the beginning of manned aviation. But there is one conflicting claim, passionately supported in Portuguese speaking lands. Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão a Brazilian born priest, sketched elaborate drawings for an airship lifted by hot air, certainly built models, and may have even left the ground in a prototype back in 1720. His fantastic creation was in the shape of a bird and even included a propulsion system—sails which could be filled with bellows in the event of no wind. An account written in 1786, three years after the Motgolfier flight claimed:
…in 1720, a Brazilian Jesuit, named Bartholomew Gusmão, possessed of abilities, imagination, and address, by permission of [King] John V. fabricated a balloon in a place contiguous to the Royal Palace, and one day, in presence of their Majesties, and an immense crowd of spectators, raised himself, by means of a fire lighted in the machine, as high as the cornice of the building; but through the negligence and want of experience of those who held the cords, the machine took an oblique direction, and, touching the cornice, burst and fell.…The balloon was in the form of a bird with a tail and wings. The inventor proposed to make new experiments, but, chagrined at the raillery of the common people, who called him wizard, and terrified by the Inquisition, he took the advice of his friends, burned his manuscripts, disguised himself, and fled to Spain, where he soon after died in an hospital.
Although some of Gusmão’s drawing and papers have been found along with accounts of displays with toys and models, most historians discount a flight in a full scale craft. This pisses the Portuguese off, who feel they have been snubbed. But then they don’t have the evidence of thousands of Parisian eye witnesses and numerous artists’ renderings from further flights.
The brothers Montgolfier were younger members of the 19 children of paper maker Pierre Montgolfier of Annonay, Ardèche. Joseph, the 12th child was born in 1740 and Étienne, the 15h, came five years later. Joseph was brilliant but rebellious and sent away by the family to study architecture in Paris.
When the eldest brother and heir to their father unexpectedly died, Joseph was recalled from Paris, promoted over older siblings, and put in charge of the family business. He made many innovations, including introducing the most modern techniques from Holland and perfected modern production techniques. His efforts gained the Royal notice and the company was commissioned to construct a new mill and factory as a model for the whole French paper industry—then one of the most important in the country.
In 1777 Joseph idly observed laundry drying over a fire. Sheets billowed and rose. Something was lifting them. He concluded that it was an as yet undiscovered gas released by combustion which he modestly named Montgolfier Gas, with a property he called levity.
It was while contemplating a military problem—the long siege of the impregnable British fortress of Gibraltar by French and Spanish forces—that he began to tinker with devises based on his discovery. After months of bombardment and attacks by sea and land, the Rock stood and along with it control of the gateway between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. What if troops could be carried over the fortress and landed with in it, he wondered. Could his gas provide the lift for such an undertaking?
He began building models at Avignon in November of 1782. His first construction was a box like chamber 3’ x 3’ x 4 out of a thin wood frame covered on the sides and top with lightweight taffeta cloth. He ignited some crumpled paper under the box which quickly rose up in the air until it banged on the ceiling. Joseph excitedly summoned his younger brother from home to join him on his project, urging him to bring “a supply of taffeta and cordage.”
The brothers built a new model three times as large which they tested outdoors in December. It floated for nearly 1.2 miles before landing and being destroyed by a frightened peasant.
The brothers refined their invention for a formal first public display. Their new model was globular and constructed of sackcloth lined with three layers of thin paper. It had a capacity for 28,000 cubic feet of air and weighed about 500 pounds. An invited audience, including dignitaries from the États particuliers assembled at Annonay on June 4, 1783 to witness flight of 1.2 mile reaching an altitude of 6,000 feet lasting 10 minutes. Official present naturally wrote enthusiastic reports to the government in Paris.
The government equally naturally called them to Paris for further demonstrations. Joseph, shy and clumsy in society, sent Étienne to the capital to collaborate with wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, for a full scale model of what they were calling a globe aérostatique and he named Aérostat Réveillon. The first test of the glorious new device flew from the grounds of la Folie Titon near Réveillon’s home
Because of concern that the upper air might be dangerous to humans, the King graciously offered two the loan of two condemned felons as passengers for the next public demonstration. Étienne demurred and elected to send aloft a duck as sort of a control animal known to withstand heights, a rooster thought not to be capable of flying a the expected altitude, and a sheep about the same weight as a man. The animals were suspended below the balloon in a basket.
A crowd of thousands gathered to watch the flight, including the King himself and Marie Antoinette on the ground of Versailles. The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles, and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet before landing safely.
After the manned ascent was test in October, it was time for the great unveiling of for an untethered manned flight. On November 21 Pilâtre de Rozier was again in the basket, accompanied by the Marquis d’Arlandes, an army officer. They took off from the Château de la Muette near to the Bois de Boulogne and were carried for miles above Paris at altitudes of up to 3,000 feet for 25 minutes. The craft landed outside the city wall between to picturesque windmills with enough fuel left to travel four times as far. But embers from the fire set fire to the edge of the envelope which Pilâtre had to beat out with his coat. Despite the harrowing landing, the voyage was a success, the talk of Paris for days, and commemorated in numerous etchings and on commemorative plates.
The King raised the Montgolfier to the nobility. Several subsequent flights were also made. But just as it looked like a rosy future for all concerned, fate intervened in two ways.
First Jacques Charles and Robert and brothers Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis Robert, were simultaneously experimenting with balloons using hydrogen for lift. They flew an unmanned demonstration in August 1783 and on December 1 over a thousand people paid to watch Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert take off in La Charlière, the first manned hydrogen balloon. That flight lasted over two hours and covered over 22 miles.
The French government concluded that hydrogen balloons were the future of viable flight, and most subsequent energy went into that. Hot air ballooning remained a novelty, as it is to this day.
The Montgolfier returned to their paper business, which thrived and continues to this day. Étienne died in Switzerland in 1799 and Joseph at Balaruc-les-Bains in 1810. Neither left children nor the family business came into the hands of other relatives.
Watching the flight of the magnificent balloon festooned with his own image was one of the last great triumphs of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Fate—in the form of the Paris Mob—would not be kind to them.
Pilâtre de Rozier became a dedicated balloon enthusiast and constructed his own. He piloted several flights. But on June 19, 1785 he and a companion, Pierre Romain were killed trying to cross the English Channel in a hybrid hot air-hydrogen balloon—not a good idea considering the volatility of hydrogen around a flame. They were the first known casualties in aviation.
De Rozier’s companion on the first untethered flight, the Marquis d’Arlandes, like the King and Queen, suffered the catastrophic separation of his head from his body during the Revolution.