Artificial Clouds and Inflammable Air: The Science and Spectacle of the First Balloon Flights, 1783


An 18th-century hydrogen filled balloon takes off. (Library of Congress)

Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier were two of sixteen siblings from a prosperous papermaking family in southern France. Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles was an urbane Parisian man of science, well-known for his public physics lectures. In the 1780s the Montgolfier brothers and Charles engaged in a spectacular race to levitate into the sky using gas-powered balloons. Their “artificial clouds,” as one writer described the flying globes, would enthrall the French capital and set off a craze for all things balloon.

The story of the first balloons starts with a classic “Eureka!” moment. As Joseph Montgolfier (1740–1810) later related, he was sitting by a fireplace one day in 1782, thinking about the fortress-like island of Gibraltar, then held by Spain. Watching the sparks and smoke go up the flue, he pondered putting hot air to military use. Steam power had been used since the beginning of the century, and even at this early stage of the Industrial Revolution improved steam engines were working in growing numbers of mines, mills, and factories. What if heated, expanding air could lift some sort of conveyance to carry soldiers for an aerial invasion, just as steam drove pumps and pistons?

To try his notion Joseph constructed a light, angular wooden framework, covered it with taffeta, and burned some paper at its lower opening. It quickly rose up to the ceiling, thrilling the dreamy inventor. Soon he and his practical brother Étienne (who was in charge of calculating size, shape, and lifting power) were creating and testing ever-larger balloons made of pieces of paper-backed cloth fastened together by cords passed through hundreds of buttonholes. After a successful public demonstration near their home in southern France, witnessed by the local assembly, published accounts of the marvel soon reached Paris.

The news excited many in the capital, including Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles (1746–1843). Well-educated and an accomplished musician, Charles was familiar with the actions of gases and owned one of the finest private collections of scientific instruments in Europe. Using these instruments in the popular science courses he taught for paying customers, Charles worked constantly to improve his experiments, believing that visual, concrete demonstrations could explain physical laws. He was thus ideally suited to compete with the Montgolfiers in developing these new flying machines, though initially he aimed only to replicate their endeavors as a contribution to scientific knowledge.