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This edited article about the hydrogen balloon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 684 published on 22 February 1975.
A nightmare was descending from the skies, or so the simple villagers of Gonesse in France thought that August day in 1783. When the horrifying object landed they stood back, gaping at the monster, which appeared to be expiring before their very eyes, so much so that one daring man risked putting a shot into it. Then, as it gasped out its life, the onlookers went at it with pitchforks and clubs until the great beast’s smell drove them back.
Finally, its remains were tied to a horse’s tail and torn to pieces after a gallop over rough fields. The villagers then relaxed. The first successful hydrogen balloon – fortunately without a passenger – was “dead”.
The early 1780s were thick with “firsts”, and the very first balloon flights, with and without passengers, were not made with the help of hydrogen. Our story really begins in the home of two French paper-makers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, who lived at Annonay, near Lyons. More than seventy years before they became immortals a Portuguese named Gusmao had thought of a hot air balloon and had actually let a primitive model one off in a hall in front of the King of Portugal, but the fire which powered its parachute-like sail set the hall’s curtains alight and that was the end of a brave effort, a half-first as it were.
The Montgolfiers probably knew nothing of Gusmao, for they had got their idea after noticing the way that pieces of burned papers floated upwards from their fire at home. They did not know about hot air becoming rarified and rising, but they did not need to. Highly imaginative men, they decided that if they could harness the rising “gas” they could lift even a man into the air.
In November 1782, they shot a silk bag to the roof of their kitchen by putting it with its open end downwards over the fire; bigger bags followed. Their first public demonstration took place on June 5, 1783, in Annonay, the balloon being made of linen and paper and having a 13 metre (approx) diameter.
A fire was lit under it and eight strong men fought its pull as it filled out. Suddenly it shot up to 2,000 metres or more, then slowly came down as its hot air cooled, and it landed more than a mile away from its blast-off point. Cheers rent the air as the townspeople celebrated the Montgolfiers’ triumph.
News sped to Paris of the feat and Etienne was summoned to repeat the performance in front of the very influential French Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, on the big day, it poured with rain and his splendid new balloon was turned into a soggy mess.
Undaunted, and with Joseph’s help, he rapidly built another to show King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles only a week after the disaster, and this time they managed to suspend a wicker basket below the balloon. Into it were put a sheep, a duck and a cock, which were destined to be the first aerial passengers, and watched by their majesties, the intrepid three soared into the air, coming down safely eight minutes later.
Now the question arose, who was to be the first man to ascend? The Montgolfiers, having invented the method, were not particularly eager to sample it themselves, so King Louis helpfully suggested that a condemned man should go up aloft and gain his pardon the hard way. Fortunately, the royal advisers pointed out that the first man to fly, a Frenchman at that, must be a worthy person, not a felon who would hardly look good in the history books.
In the end a volunteer was found, a 29-year-old doctor named Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, and the Montgolfiers built him an even better balloon. The previous balloon’s gas-bag was used, but its shape was changed from round to semi-spherical. A brazier was fixed to the neck and the “aeronaut” was provided with enough space on a wicker gallery to keep the fire stoked up, while the balloon itself was liberally covered with striking designs.
On October 15, 1783, de Rozier alone stepped into the basket in front of a huge crowd and up went the balloon to the end of its ropes to a height of almost 28 metres. Stoking away with a will, he kept the balloon up for four minutes, then came down to mammoth applause, having suffered, as he told the press, “no giddiness, no incommoding motion, no shock whatever.”
This ranks as man’s first flight, but after several more excursions, each higher than the last, another equally significant and more exciting “first” took place, the first free flight.
The great day was November 21, 1783 and this time de Rozier had a passenger with him, the Marquis d’Arlands, who acted as chief stoker. These two men were the first to experience the thrill of moving across the sky and gazing down on the landscape from above, a joy known to many millions since. Not that they had all that much time for sightseeing, which was bad luck, for below them was Paris. There was plenty of stoking to be done and once a spark from the brazier hit the balloon and made it smoulder. Emergency action with a wet sponge was needed to prevent a catastrophe.
This thrilling exploit lasted 25 minutes and when the balloon landed it had travelled 5 and a half miles across the city.
Nothing can diminish the achievement of the Montgolfier brothers and their first “pilots”, but it is only fair to return to where we started, to the hydrogen balloon. A Professor Charles had been experimenting with something better and safer than hot air, which had to be kept active so riskily in flight. He had started as soon as the Montgolfiers had had their success, and, as a scientist, which they were not, he knew about the gas, hydrogen, which had been discovered by a Briton, Henry Cavendish, some years before.
Being about fourteen times as light as air, it was much more suitable than hot-air for balloons, and could be sealed up in a gas-bag. A leak-proof bag using rubberised silk was invented by the Robert brothers and the first Charles-Robert balloon went up on August 27, 1783, with the results we have seen. The government issued orders about a strange object in the sky and that it was harmless, but in the days before radio and television it was not easy to get the news through to everyone, hence the destruction of the “monster”.
Another was built, and on December 1, 1783. Professor Charles and one of the Roberts went up for a trip which lasted two hours and covered 27 miles. The shape of this balloon, with a “car” or basket below it, made it the ancestor of all later balloons. Only two years later the Channel was crossed, but that is another story.