The first to fly: The true story of two eccentric 18th century inventors

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 26, 2013

From The News Desk


The story of the first humans to fly involves two eccentric French brothers, lots of taffeta, a race against the French Academy of Science, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin, a scheming scientist, a nobleman, a rooster, duck, and a sheep.


On June 4, 1783, at the marketplace in Annonay, France, six years before the onset of the French Revolution, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, sons of a wealthy paper manufacturer, invited nobles and peasants alike to the main square of their hometown to gather around their giant globe-shaped balloon. Stitched from four humongous sections of sackcloth with three layers of thin paper forming an inner chamber and held together with eighteen hundred buttons, the balloon was 66 feet in diameter, engorged with 28,000 cubic feet of hot, smoky air, and weighed 500 pounds.

The twelfth of sixteen children, Joseph, born in 1740, had always been the maverick of the family. After running away from school as a teenager, he picked mulberry leaves before going into business for himself selling chemical products. Slovenly in dress and manner, he spent his meager wages on mathematics and physics textbooks. While his father eventually convinced him to enter the family business he devoted most of his time to daydreaming. In contrast, the younger Jacques-Etienne, born in 1745, was diligent, sociable and smart -- his nickname was the "calculating machine" -- the public face of the family who was good with business and comfortable mixing with the elite and hoi polloi alike. He studied architecture in Paris, where he hobnobbed with great scientists of his time like Benjamin Franklin.

It was Joseph, however, who first conceived of balloon travel six years earlier. Depending on which version of his story you believe (he was an unreliable narrator) the epiphany struck him when he watched his wife's chemise lift off when placed before a fire to dry, or maybe it was his own shirt, although it didn't lift off, he simply noticed it was billowing, with pockets of air pushing it up. Then again, it could have been a loaf wrapping his wife tossed on the flames, which, when it began to burn, rose into the air; or perhaps it was after Joseph read up on British scientist Dr. Joseph Priestly's experiments with different types of air.

Joseph didn't get around to conducting any experiments of his own until November 1792. One day, as he watched flames lick the air, his mind, as it was want to do, wandered, and he thought about the best way to attack a well-protected fortress like Gibraltar, which was considered impregnable by both land and sea. He wondered, what if soldiers could be transported into the air by the same force that lifted the embers in a fire?

He decided that within the heated air, there must be a gas -- he dubbed it "Montgolfier Gas" -- that was visible as smoke and possessed special properties he attributed to "levity." Of course, he was completely wrong about that: Hot air rises because the air expands when it's heated so that its density is reduced as volume increases. On the basis of who knows what, he concluded the best gas would come from burning a mix of chopped wool and damp straw. Later, he and his brother would throw old boots and rotting meat into the fires, believing they raised the fuel's octane.

To test his theories, Joseph constructed an envelope out of taffeta (a crisp, smooth woven fabric made from silk) ribbed with an internal frame of very light wood and designed with an open neck at the bottom. He wadded up then lit some paper, which filled the envelope with hot air and smoke, watching in awe as his creation rose to the ceiling.

Joseph immediately wrote Jacques-Etienne: "Prepare supplies of taffeta and rope and you will see one of the most astounding things in the world!" Outside he repeated the experiment for his brother and the balloon soared 60 feet into the air. Those British soldiers protecting Gibraltar from French and Spanish troops wouldn't stand a chance.

The two erstwhile inventors pooled their resources for a development program to build and test successfully larger balloons. In December 1782, they constructed what they called an aerostat three times bigger and twenty-seven times larger in air volume than the prototype Joseph tried out in his room. On its maiden voyage it took off so fast they lost control and the balloon soared more than a mile from where it took off.

Eventually it was destroyed through the "indiscretion" of passersby, no doubt alarmed by the strange object that had fallen from the sky. The following April they tested a balloon 30 feet in diameter, which achieved an altitude of 600 feet and floated with the wind for more than half a mile.

To stake claim to their invention, the brothers invited the town to witness their next flight. In front of an audience of hundreds, the Montgolfiers had their helpers inflate their latest and greatest vessel, which at 28,000 cubic feet was more than twice the size of the one they tested two months earlier.

When released, the balloon climbed to more than 3,000 feet and covered a mile and a half in the 10 minutes it remained aloft, coming down gradually as the air inside cooled.

Finally, Man had defied gravity and created a machine that could fly.

Word quickly spread to Paris.

A rooster, a duck, and a sheep

The French Academy of Sciences was miffed that two ignorant non-scientists had created the first flying ship. That would not do, hence the Academy supported the quest of one of its members, a young physicist named Jacques-Alexandre-Cesar Charles, who immediately attempted to reproduce the Montgolfier's experiments. Along the way he noted that the volume of a gas is directly proportional to its temperature, a phenomenon he called Charles Law, which persists to this day.

Professor Charles suggested a hydrogen-filled balloon made from a silk envelope and coated with a rubber solution to make it leak-proof, which scientific research indicated should fly higher and faster than any hot air balloon. It took him a little more than two months to construct the balloon, and four days to mix the hydrogen, which required him to douse one thousand pounds of iron filings with five hundred pounds of sulfuric acid. It was, at the time, the largest quantity of hydrogen ever produced.

On a late August rainy day Charles waited for a cannon shot before untethering the twelve-foot tall aerostat from Champ de Mars in Paris, where, it was said, half the population came to watch, but only those with tickets allowed anywhere near. It shot three thousand feet into the atmosphere in just minutes and when it disappeared from sight another cannon shot was fired to bid it adieu.

Three-quarters of an hour later it alighted 18 miles away in a field in the village of Gonesse, where peasants thought it might be a giant bird or invaders from the moon and tore it to bits with pitchforks and scythes. For good measure they strapped the fabric to a horse's tail and sent him galloping through the field, until hardly a trace of Charles' balloon survived.

Meanwhile, Jacques Montgolfier was also in Paris to arrange a public demonstration, securing the support of King Louis XVI and funding from the government, as well as finessing a joint venture with wallpaper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, which provided the paper for the brothers' next balloon. It was their biggest yet: 66 feet tall, 40-plus feet wide, fueled with 50 pounds of damp straw and wool, and the exterior decorated in 18th century sky blue wallpaper with accents of gold, signs of the zodiac and suns. Things went as planned until a sudden storm broke, the wallpaper dissolved and the vessel flopped to the ground a sodden mess.

Undeterred the Montgolfiers got to work on a replacement composed of taffeta coated with aluminum varnish that had fire-prevention properties, and decided to include the first air passengers. Not a person, since no one knew what effect high altitudes would have on humans, but animals. After mulling a horse or an ox, they opted for a duck, a rooster, and a sheep they named Montauciel ("Climb-to-the-sky"). They figured winged animals should have little problem with altitude while conventional wisdom of their day held that sheep most closely approximated the physiology of humans.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attended the next launch of a montgolfier, which commenced from the front courtyard of Chateau de la Muette the king's estate near the house of Réveillon. A wicker basket containing the caged livestock was affixed to the bottom and, adding to the poundage of straw and wool fuel were some old boots and rotting meat, which the brothers believed would increase the autostat's lift.

At 1 pm, after lunch with the monarch, the brothers released the balloon from a special fire platform to the cheers of the crowd. One intrigued onlooker was fellow scientist and envoy to France from the United States, Benjamin Franklin. When asked of what use the balloon would be, he famously retorted, "What use, sir, is a newborn baby?"

Toting its animal carriage, the balloon traveled two miles, landing gently enough in the Vaucresson Forest. The first on the scene, arriving on horseback, was a 30-year-old scientist named Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, head of the king's natural history collection. He rooted around for the livestock, which were buried under the balloon's deflated skin. When he opened the cage he discovered the duck and sheep, while dazed, unscathed, but the rooster had injured one of its wings, which could have happened any time during the flight and for any number of reasons.

Back at the royal estate, King Louis was delighted, and ordered the animals cooked for his dinner.

flyers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier

Next passenger: a human. Make that two.

Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier and Rozier informed his majesty, well known for his indecisiveness, that their next balloon would carry a man.

Absolutely not, Louis replied. He might have pointed out that theologians were dead set against the idea. God would not approve of ballooning and any man who went up in a one would be approaching the gates of Heaven before his proper time. Or perhaps it was the king's mood.

Nevertheless, Montgolfier and Rozier persisted.

Very well, his highness said, provided the flying men were condemned criminals, who he would pardon if they survived, which he thought unlikely.

Rozier protested, arguing that the glory of the first flight should not be given to criminals. He enlisted the aid of François Laurent, who was the Marquis d'Arlandes and a cousin of the king, who, in turn, petitioned Maria Antoinette to convince Louis to change his royal mind, which he did. Unfortunately for de Rozier, this assistance cost him the chance to fly solo when Arlandes insisted on joining him on their maiden voyage.

As autumn merged with winter, Rozier and the Montgolfier brothers' worked on a larger, more durable vessel in the shape of a giant lemon, equipped with a circular wicker compartment that looked like a giant bracelet and hung near the bottom with a separate iron fire basket. The balloon's skin was painted blue and gold and ornamented with gold fleurs-de-lis, the monogram of Louis XVI.

No one thought it prudent to dispatch two men into the atmosphere without first conducting tests. The group settled on ropes to hold the balloon in place while Rozier climbed aboard and was slowly raised to a height of 80 feet, where he maintained his position by fine-tuning the fire's intensity. Four days later Rozier rose to 250 feet, the vessel was pulled down, Marquis Arlandes joined him onboard, and the two floated up to 350 feet.

On the appointed hour and day, November 21, 1783, at Chateau de la Muette, the sky was partly cloudy and the wind puffed in from the northwest. The first attempt went awry, however, when a hard gust blew the balloon into one of the garden walks. The ropes rubbed against the fabric, causing several tears, the longest stretching six feet.

Two hours later at 1:54 p.m., after repairs were affected, the world's first aeronauts set off. There was a hush as the balloon cut a majestic figure as it rose over the palace.

"No one could help feeling a mingled sentiment of fear and admiration," attested an octet of observers that included Benjamin Franklin in a signed affidavit later that day.

Bickering in the balloon

Adrift in the wind 270 feet up, the balloon passed a hedge and did a half turn. Onboard, Arlandes was astonished by the crowd's unexpected quiescence. Perhaps they are frightened, he reasoned. He waved but there was no discernible response, so he shook his handkerchief and "immediately perceived a great movement in the garden," he wrote in a letter dated a week later. "It seemed as if the spectators all formed one mass, which rushed, by an involuntary motion, towards the wall, which it seemed to consider as the only obstacle between us."

His partner in flight interrupted his reverie, one nobleman to another: "You are doing nothing," Rozier said, "and the balloon is scarcely rising a fathom."

Arlandes begged his pardon, stirred the fire then tossed in a brick of straw. Ascending quickly, he was having trouble getting a fix on their position. They were so high he could not make out individual buildings, not even the Chateau de la Muette from whence they began their journey. Following the serpentine path of the Seine until he could identify the bends in the river. Recognizing the Visitation de Chaillot, a mammoth double-winged palace on the bank of the river, he ticked off each neighborhood. "Passy, St. Germain, St. Denis, Sevres!"

"If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon," Roziers cried. "Some fire, my dear friend. Some fire."

Left to the whims of the wind, their craft appeared reluctant to cross the river, and instead hovered over the water and headed upstream. Neither welcomed this turn of events; they would prefer to hover over terra firma in case they needed to land. Some minutes later, Arlandes said, "Here is a river which is very difficult to cross."

"So it seems," Rozier replied, "but you are doing nothing. I suppose it is because you are braver than I, and don't fear a tumble."

Arlandes poked the fire and seized a truss of straw with his fork, which being pressed too tightly, wouldn't light. He shook it over the flames and a tremendous heat seized his armpits. "We are rising now," he called.

Suddenly Arlandes heard a loud noise originate from the top of the balloon, so loud and forceful he thought it might have popped. When he looked, however, he saw nothing out of sorts. Rozier climbed above to investigate. Without warning they were jolted straight up. "What are you doing up there -- dancing?" Arlandes asked.

"I am not stirring," Rozier said.

"So much the better," Arlandes said. "This must be a new current, which will, I hope, take us off the river."

It did. They drifted over the city to surrounding countryside.

Arlandes heard a new noise, and discovered a plethora of flaming holes, some quite large, breaking out on the south side of the balloon. "We must get down!" Arlandes shouted.

"Why?" Rozier asked.

"Look!" Arlandes grabbed a sponge to extinguish the flames closest to him. "We must descend!"

Rozier surveyed the landscape and pointed out they were over Paris.

Arlandes tested the cords connecting the fire iron to the balloon. Two had snapped but the rest seemed sound. He suggested they cross the city to locate a suitable landing place to land. Passengers on an out-of-control coach over rough roads, they were soon speeding toward a patch of roofs. If they ran into them, they would either die from the impact or from the inevitable flames that would consume them.

They reignited the fire by throwing more bricks of straw and wool into the embers, and their craft responded by arcing over the top. As they sped downhill the wind shifted and pushed them south toward the heavily wooded Luxembourg Gardens.

Rozier fine-tuned their final descent by feeding small portions of straw and wool to the fire to slow their descent. They sped over a major boulevard -- the last major obstacle before open plains beckoned -- and Rozier snuffed out the fire.

The balloon got smaller and smaller as they headed lower and lower. Finally, 25 minutes after they departed, near a mill in Butte-aux-Cailles, a neighborhood located on hills in the southeast corner of the city, they hit the ground with a jolt.

Balloon fabric plopped down on Arlandes' head. He pushed it off, leaped out and turned to face the ballon, which was perfectly empty, flattened like a fallen soufflé.

Roziers crept out from under the sea of canvas in shirtsleeves because he had used his coat to tamp down the many fires that had plagued their flight.

The two aero-voyagers set out for the nearest house to seek warmth, national heroes of France.

More balloon records and an untimely death

Two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, 400,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Jardin des Tuileries in Paris to watch the young physicist from the French Academy of Science, Jacques Charles, man a hydrogen balloon with Nicholas-Louis Robert. Rising to 1,800 feet, they sailed 20 miles in two hours and five minutes, coming down in Nesles-la-Vallée as the sun was setting. Robert got out and Charles flew solo, climbing rapidly to nine thousand feet where he became the first man to greet both a sunset and sunrise in a balloon. After experiencing crushing pain in his ears, however, he promptly descended and never flew again.

A month and a half later, in Lyon, on January 19, 1784, 100,000 spectators congregated for the dispatch of another montgolfier, their biggest yet, which was sponsored by the governor of Lyon. This time six men were onboard, including Rozier and its inventor Joseph Montgolfier.

In true madcap style there was a scuffle as the balloon was launched when a seventh man, Claudius Fontaine, jumped into the basket. He had assisted Joseph with the initial experiments and often begged to be the first to fly, an honor that had been bestowed on Rozier and the nobleman. To make up for this slight, Joseph promised he could come with him.

On the blessed day, however, Prince Charles-Joseph Lamoral de Ligne informed Fontaine there was no room. The balloon was at a considerable height before anyone other than Joseph noticed the stowaway. The Prince of Ligne was angry, but Fontaine cut him off, saying "Princes may consider themselves our superiors on earth, but in the aerial regions we are now exploring, we are all equal, and on the same level."

The trip was truncated when at three thousand feet a large section of fabric ripped. The balloon hurtled to earth, landing roughly and leaving the men shaken but otherwise unharmed.

This would be the Montgolfiers' final balloon. After King Louis XVI elevated their father to the nobility and honored their family with the symbol SIC ITURE AD ASTRA -- "Thus we go to the stars" -- Joseph and Jacques-Etienne returned to papermaking, their inheritance largely spent. The balloon, Etienne wrote in a letter later that year, "is a beautiful fruit, but it is not ripe. We will be dead before the sun of practice and experience will ripen it. It is a tree we have planted for our nephews."

While he and his brother were the first to send men into the sky, it was the hydrogen balloon that became all the rage in eighteenth century Europe, validating Charles' vision. These early flights were a sensation, drawing millions of people across Europe to bear witness to history. Coins were minted and engravings etched to commemorate them. Shopkeepers sold enamel and gilt-bronze replicas, crockery and clocks with balloon-shaped dials, jewelry, lanterns in the shape of montgolfiers, paintings, and balloon-back chairs.

As for Rozier, he requested 40,000 francs from the crown the following year to build a balloon to bring glory to France as first to cross the English Channel. It was, he argued, a matter of national pride. Thin as a French coin and fearless, Rozier designed his balloon to be a cross between a montgolfiere and Charles' hydrogen version: The lower part was pumped with hot air while the upper section was a huge hydrogen bubble.

Rozier reasoned that "when I wish to descend I shall simply cool the hot air in the montgolfier instead of letting out the gas. Then, to rise again it would only be necessary to rekindle the fire. This also renders ballast unnecessary."

Professor Charles called it for what it was: "like lighting a fire under a barrel of gunpowder."

Rozier transported his balloon to the coastal city of Boulogne and waited, the wind cold, unforgiving, and, worst of all, blowing from England to France. At the same time an Englishman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and John Jeffries, an American actor, were in Dover preparing to cross from the other side.

Each day Rozier waited for the wind to change and retired to his inn, disappointed. He sent up trial balloons in the hopes they might rise into a crosscurrent, but they all returned to France.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries took off from southern England. Partway across, the balloon lost gas and they started sinking toward the gray, choppy waters of the Channel. Frantically they threw overboard everything they could think of -- all their ballast and most of their clothing -- and somehow managed to remain aloft. The only cargo they kept was the first international airmail, which they delivered upon landing in Felmore Forest, France. They completed their 28-mile journey in about two and a half hours.

A true gentleman, Rozier was one of the first to congratulate his rivals. He might have been satisfied to seek other challenges, but the King's men reminded him that he could still fly across the Channel the other way; that way France could still have its glory. At any rate it would not look good if Rozier wasted 40,000 francs. He returned to his balloon, which by this point was weather-beaten, the taffeta chewed up by packs of rats.

At 7 a.m. on June 15th, Rozier and his friend, a doctor named Pierre Romain, reluctantly set sail for England.

They floated out over the surf until the wind urged them back to France. For the next half hour their hybrid fire and gas balloon seemed stuck in time and space, a thousand feet above the shore.

Suddenly Rozier made what witnesses described as a gesture of alarm as a blue flame leaped from the bottom of the balloon. There was an explosion and the two men hurtled to their deaths.

That made Rozier not only the first man to fly in a balloon, he was the first killed in one, too.

[Image via Pilot Magazine]