Have you ever heard of the Montgolfier brothers? No? We’re not too surprised, but now’s the time to learn. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne were the inventors of the first-ever hot air balloon. Indeed, their innovation and success was the true beginning of the modern era of flight — and you might be surprised at how far back this invention dates. The first hot-air-balloon flight took place in Annonay, France in 1783. That’s nearly 200 years before the Wright brothers — there seems to be a theme here — built the first successful airplane. [photo credit: mortimer? via photopin cc]
First Unmanned Flight
The idea for a hot air balloon actually stemmed from the brothers’ profession: They were paper manufacturers — exciting, we know — and, through their work, discovered that heated air flowing into a paper bag caused the bag to rise. Thus, an idea was born. The Montgolfier brothers threw time and effort into launching experiments and making their vision come to life. And, on June 5th, 1783, the first balloon, which was constructed out of silk and lined with paper, was deemed ready for flight. (Some people do claim it was June 4th, but we’re thinking it’s possible that it took a while for news to spread back in 1783.)
When inflated, the brothers’ first balloon spanned ten meters– that’s about 32 feet — in diameter. Perhaps slightly nervous at the potential outcome of the first flight, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne decided that the initial test should be unmanned, so an empty balloon was launched. Success! On its first flight, the balloon rose to an estimated 5500 feet. Although it was off the ground for only ten minutes, the brothers’ creation still managed to travel more than a mile.
The First Passengers
Naturally, when the news of the Montgolfier brothers’ success traveled far and wide — via Facebook, Twitter, etc — they were invited to make a demonstration for King Louis XVI. In order to simultaneously impress and honor the king, the brothers adorned this new balloon (this time nine meters in diameter and made from taffeta) with designs and symbols that paid proper laud to the French monarch. They also included a coat of alum as a means of fireproofing the craft. Good thinking, boys.
Although anxious to see subjects aboard the balloon, the king was nonetheless worried about the effects of traveling at high altitudes. So, as a potential solution, the King Louis offered to hand over several French prisoners as test subjects — yes, times have changed. The Montgolfier brothers, however, shook their heads and decided to use a more scientific approach: The first passengers on board the second-ever hot air balloon were a sheep, whose physiology was said to closely resemble a human’s; a duck, the “control group,” because it was accustomed to flying at high altitudes; and a rooster, which couldn’t fly very high above the ground. Just picture that in your head. On a summer day in 1783, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster were flying high above France in a hot air balloon. That sounds like the beginning of a very bad joke. Yet again, the brothers achieved success: This second balloon traveled about two miles in eight minutes and landed smoothly.
First Human Passengers
Because the sheep, the duck, and the rooster all arrived home safely, the next logical step was to try putting an actual human being in the basket. On October 15, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier — a scientist and physics teacher — stepped aboard the balloon. Erring on the side of caution, the Montgolfier brothers chose to tether the balloon to the ground. Pilâtre de Rozier was in the air for about four minutes and, just as the animals had, landed safely on the ground.
About a month later, true triumph was reached: On November 21, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free flight, traveling from the center of Paris into the suburbs. The trip lasted a whopping 25 minutes, and the pair covered more than five miles.
It is only fitting that the Montgolfier brothers receive proper recognition for achieving such an accomplishment. Their success paved the way for further innovations in manned flight. Although the hot air balloon is not a heavily used means of travel — airplanes tend to be just a little bit faster — the talent of the Montgolfier brothers cannot be ignored. But, ladies, don’t let this be a brothers-only show. We want to see the next innovation in traveling be conquered by a pair of sisters, okay?