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)

Faujas de Saint-Fond later described the crowd’s reactions: “The idea of a body parted from the earth and voyaging in space had something so admirable and so sublime about it, so far removed from ordinary laws” that all the spectators were filled with enthusiasm. Even the ladies ignored the rain spoiling their elegant dresses and coiffures as they turned their faces to the sky. Less than an hour later the partly deflated balloon landed in a village about 15 miles north of Paris, where peasants, startled by this uncanny apparition from the heavens, attacked it with pitchforks and other tools.

Though Charles had pulled ahead for the moment, the Montgolfier brothers, after arriving in Paris to seek patronage for their project, had won the favor of government officials and King Louis XVI. In August, as Charles was making final preparations for his hydrogen balloon launch, the Montgolfiers were busy constructing a large balloon for a demonstration before the royal family and court at the palace of Versailles. Since no one knew if there was breathable air high above the earth, the brothers and their collaborators decided to send three animals aloft. If the sheep, duck, and rooster survived the journey, then the way would be cleared for humans to fly. On 19 September, after a royal inspection of the balloon and its heating apparatus—a brazier that held burning straw and wool—the vessel took off. The huge crowd of onlookers had an anxious moment when the balloon tipped suddenly and lost some air, but it soon righted itself and floated away, landing gently in a nearby wood after an eight-minute flight. All three animal aeronauts were alive and well.

Now the race was on for the honor of being the first human to fly. On 15 October, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier went up in a tethered montgolfière, the name now given to the brothers’ hot-air balloons. The next month saw the first-ever manned free flight, again in a montgolfière. Decorated with royal emblems in gold on a blue background, this magnificent construction, piloted by Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, the marquis d’Arlandes, flew for 25 minutes. Though the balloon turned frequently in the wind, disorienting its passengers, the landing was safe. The marquis even visited Benjamin Franklin that evening to tell of his adventures. The famed scientist and statesman was then serving as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from the young United States. Living at Passy, then just outside Paris, Franklin participated in the city’s wide range of scientific activities and entertainments. He eagerly followed news about the first balloons, and witnessed this ascension and others, sending detailed descriptions to his correspondents abroad. Replying to a skeptic who questioned the utility of the new invention, Franklin was reported to have asked the rhetorical question: “What use is a newborn baby?” Franklin may never have said those exact words, but he did write that balloons “may pave the Way to some Discoveries in Natural Philosophy of which at present we have no Conception.”

Just two weeks after Pilâtre de Rozier and Laurent rose to the skies in their hot-air montgolfière, on 1 December 1783 the first manned hydrogen balloon flight occurred. Jacques Charles and instrument maker Marie-Noël Robert flew for an unprecedented 2 hours, traveling nearly 30 miles before their charlière descended safely on the Plain of Nesle, north of Paris. A happy group greeted the aeronauts, including two horsemen who had galloped after the balloon.