Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (26 August 1740 – 26 June 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (6 January 1745 – 2 August 1799) were the inventors of the montgolfière style hot air balloon, globe aérostatique or airship. The brothers succeeded in launching the first manned ascent, carrying a young physician, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, and an audacious army officer, François Laurent d'Arlandes, into the sky. Later, in December 1783 in recognition of their achievement, their father Pierre was elevated to the nobility and the hereditary appellation of de Montgolfier by King Louis XVI of France.
The brothers were born into a family of paper manufacturers in Annonay, in Ardèche, France. Their parents were Pierre Mongolfier (1700-1793), and his wife Anne Duret (1701-1760), who had sixteen children. Pierre established his eldest son Raymond Montgolfier, later Raymond de Montgolfier (1730-1792) as his successor.
Joseph, the 12th child, possessed a typical inventor's temperament -- a maverick and dreamer, and impractical in terms of business and personal affairs. Étienne had a much more even and businesslike temperament. As the 15th child, and particularly troublesome to his elder siblings, he was sent to Paris to train as an architect. However, after the sudden and unexpected death of Raymond in 1772, he was recalled to Annonay to run the family business. In the subsequent 10 years, Étienne applied his talent for technical innovation to the family business; papermaking was a high-tech industry in the 18th century. He succeeded in incorporating the latest Dutch innovations of the day into the family mills. His work led to recognition by the government of France as well as the awarding of a government grant to establish the Montgolfier factory as a model for other French papermakers.
Of the two brothers, it was Joseph who first contemplated building "machines" . Gillispie puts it as early as 1777 when Joseph observed laundry drying over a fire incidentally form pockets that billowed upwards. Joseph made his first definitive experiments in November of 1782 while living in the city of Avignon. He reported, some years later, that he was watching a fire one evening while contemplating one of the great military issues of the day -- an assault on the fortress of Gibraltar, which had proved impregnable by both sea and land. Joseph mused on the possibility of an air assault using troops lifted by the same force that was lifting the embers from the fire. He believed that contained within the smoke was a special gas, which he called 'Montgolfier Gas', with a special property he called 'levity'.
As a result of these musings, Joseph set about building a box-like chamber 1x1x1,3m (3 ft by 3 ft (0.91 m) by 4 ft) out of very thin wood and covering the sides and top with lightweight taffeta cloth. Under the bottom of the box he crumpled and lit some paper. The contraption quickly lifted off its stand and collided with the ceiling. Joseph then recruited his brother to balloon building by writing the prophetic words: "Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world."
The two brothers then set about building a contraption 3 times larger in scale (27 times larger in volume). The lifting force was so great that they lost control of their craft on its very first test flight on 14 December 1782. The device floated nearly 2 kilometres (about 1.2 mi). It was destroyed after landing by the "indiscretion" of passersby.
The brothers decided to make a public demonstration of a balloon in order to establish their claim to its invention. They constructed a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth with three thin layers of paper inside. The envelope could contain nearly 790 m³ (28,000 cubic feet) of air and weighed 225 kg (500 lb). It was constructed of four pieces (the dome and three lateral bands), and held together by 1,800 buttons. A reinforcing "fish net" of cord covered the outside of the envelope.
On 4 June 1783, they flew this craft as their first public demonstration at Annonay in front of a group of dignitaries from the Etats particulars. Its flight covered 2 km (1.2 mi), lasted 10 minutes, and had an estimated altitude of 1.600 - 2.000m (5,200 - 6,600 ft). Word of their success quickly reached Paris. Etienne went to the capital to make further demonstrations and to solidify the brothers' claim to the invention of flight. Joseph, given his unkempt appearance and shyness, remained with the family. Etienne was the epithome of sober virtues ... modest in clothes and manner... He was dressed stylishly in black.
In collaboration with the successful wallpaper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, Etienne constructed a 37,500-cubic-foot (1,060 m) envelope of taffeta coated with a varnish of alum (which has fireproofing properties). The balloon was sky blue and with golden flourishes, signs of the zodiac, suns. The design showed the intervention of Réveillon. The next test was on the 11th of September from the grounds of la Folie Titon, close to the house of Réveillon. There was some concern about the effects of flight into the upper atmosphere on living creatures. The king proposed to launch two criminals, but it is most likely that the inventors decided to send animals aloft first.
On 19 September 1783 the Aerostat Réveillon was flown with the first living beings in a basket attached to the balloon: a sheep, called Montauciel (Climb-to-the-sky), a duck and a rooster. The sheep was believed to have a reasonable approximation of human physiology. The duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted aloft. It was included as a control for effects created by the aircraft rather than the altitude. The rooster was included as a further control as it was a bird that did not fly at high altitudes. This demonstration was performed before a huge crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles (3 km), and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet (460 m). The craft landed safely after flying.
With the successful demonstration at Versailles, and again in collaboration with Réveillon, Etienne started construction of a 60,000-cubic-foot (1,700 m) balloon for the purpose of making flights with humans. The craft was 75 feet (23 m) tall and 46 feet (14 m) in diameter. The balloon was tested in tethered flights on 15 October by Pilâtre de Rozier, a twenty-six-year-old physician, who offered his services. On the 17 October the experiment was repeated before a group of scientists and 19 October Rozier and André Giroud de Villette, a wallpaper manufacturer from Madrid, reached 324 feet (99 m) within 15 seconds along retaining ropes.
On 21 November 1783 the first free flight by humans was made by Pilâtre, together with an army officer, the marquis d'Arlandes. The flight began from the grounds of the Château de la Muette (close to the Bois de Boulogne (park)) in the western outskirts of Paris. They flew aloft about 3,000 feet (910 m) above Paris for a distance of nine kilometres. After 25 minutes the machine landed between the windmills, outside the city ramparts, on the Butte-aux-Cailles. Enough fuel remained on board at the end of the flight to have allowed the balloon to fly four to five times as far. However, burning embers from the fire were scorching the balloon fabric and had to be daubed out with sponges. As it appeared it could destroy the balloon, Pilâtre took off his coat to stop the fire.
The early flights made a sensation. Numerous engravings commemorated the events. Chairs were designed with balloon backs, and mantel clocks were produced in enamel and gilt-bronze replicas set with a dial in the balloon. One could buy crockery decorated with naive pictures of balloons.
In 1766, the British scientist Henry Cavendish had discovered hydrogen, by adding sulphuric acid to iron, tin, or zinc shavings. The development of gas balloons proceeded almost in parallel with the work of the Montgolfiers. This work was led by Jacques Charles. On the 27th of August 1783, a hydrogen balloon was launched from the Champ de Mars in Paris. Six thousand people paid for a seat. A downpour of rain ended the show. On December, the 1st, prof. Charles went up into the sky twice.
Work on each type of balloon was spurred on by the knowledge that there was a competing group and alternative technology. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that the French government chose to put a proponent of hydrogen in charge of balloon development, hot air balloons were superseded by hydrogen balloons. Hydrogen balloons became the predominant technology for the next 180 years.
Hydrogen balloons were used for all major ballooning accomplishments such as the crossing of the English Channel on 7 January 1785, by the tireless aviators Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries, from Boston.
Some claim that the hot air balloon was actually invented some 74 years earlier by the Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão. A description of his invention was published in 1709, in Vienna, and another one that was lost was found in the Vatican (circa 1917). However, this claim is not generally recognized by aviation historians outside the Portuguese speaking community, in particular the FAI.
Published - July 2009
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