|The Montgolfier Brothers
[mahnt gahl' fE er] makers of the first
Joseph-Michel (August 26,
1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques-Étienne (January
6, 1745-August 2, 1799) Montgolfier were paper
manufacturers who also had a lively and informed
interest in scientific matters. Both were
responsible for innovations in the paper-making
Joseph was familiar with the
researches into gases that Joseph Priestley was currently undertaking in England.
He was also aware of the discovery of hydrogen by
in 1766, and of the implication that a gas which
is 14 times as light as air could be made to lift
a load if trapped inside an airtight membrane.
The production of hydrogen in any quantity had
not yet been achieved, however, and it was
difficult to find a suitable leak-proof material.
The brothers therefore concentrated on the
hot-air principle, believing that gases in the
smoke from a fire could cause a balloon to rise.
In November 1782, Joseph built
a box-like chamber (3'x3'x4') out of thin wood
and covered the sides and top with taffeta cloth.
Under the bottom of the box he crumpled and lit
some paper. The box lifted off its stand and
promptly collided with the ceiling. Joseph then
recruited his brother to help with his
experiments. In December he repeated his
experiment out of doors, with his entire family
as witnesses. This time his box-like balloon went
70 feet into the air and remained aloft for a
Joseph and Jacques then set
about building a contraption three times larger
in scale. The lifting force was so great that
they lost control of their craft on its very
first flight, on December 14, 1782. The
"balloon" floated about 1.5 miles
before crash landing in the village of Gonesse.
The alarmed inhabitants, thinking that it was the
skin of a monstrous animal, attacked it with
pitchforks and stones, destroying it.
Given these initial successes,
the brothers were now prepared to make a public
demonstration of their "balloon" in
order to establish their claim to its invention.
They built a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth
with three thin layers of paper inside that could
hold almost 28,000 cubic feet of air. On June 5,
1783, they flew this craft at Annonay in front of
a group of dignitaries. The flight covered about
1.5 miles, lasted 10 minutes, and reached an
altitude of about 6,000 feet.
When news of the Montgolfiers'
successful flight reached Paris, the Academy of
Sciences immediately invited the brothers to set
up a demonstration. In collaboration with a
wallpaper manufacturer, the brothers constructed
a 37,500 cubic foot envelope of taffeta coated
with varnish and covered in bright colors. The
craft was launched from the Palace of Versailles
on September 19, 1783, before a huge crowd that
included King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Because the effects of traveling in a
balloon were unknown, the Montgolfiers decided to
make a duck, a cock, and a sheep be the first
passengers. The 41-foot-diameter baloon reached
an altitude of 1,700 feet before descending
gently into the forest about two miles away,
after a flight of approximately 8 minutes. The
animal passengers were unharmed, except that the
sheep had kicked one of the cock's wings and
damaged it slightly.
The way was now clear for a man
to make the first balloon ascent. However, Pierre
Montgolfier, father of the brothers, had given
his permission for his sons to work on balloons
rather than in the family paper-making business
only on the condition that neither of the
brothers ever go aloft in a balloon themselves.
In addition, the king insisted that any
passengers should be criminals whose lives were
expendable. Fortunately, the king's historian, a
young scientist named Jean-Françoise Pilâtre de
Rozier, was able to overcome the king's decree
and was chosen to be the passenger in a series of
tethered test flights.
By now the fire was slung under
the neck of the balloon in an iron basket, and
could be controlled and replenished by the
balloonists, and the diameter of the balloon had
grown to almost 50 feet. For the first untethered
flight, which took place on November 21, 1783,
Pilâtre de Rozier was joined by the Marquis
d'Arlandes. In 25 minutes the two men traveled
just over five miles. Enough fuel remained on
board at the end of the flight to have allowed
the balloon to fly four to five times as far, but
burning embers from the fire threatened to engulf
the balloon and the men decided to land as soon
as they were over open countryside.
The Montgolfiers continued to
improve their hot-air balloon, but the future of
ballooning lay with the hydrogen balloon,
invented and perfected by
Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles in 1783.
Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists
and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology
from Earliest Times to Present Day
New York: Facts on File, 1979
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