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)


By the end of 1783 balloon flight was a genuine phenomenon. Ballomanie, or “balloonomania,” had swept the nation, with the vessels displayed not just in books and prints but also used as embellishments for clothing, jewelry, porcelain, curtains, wallpaper, and other decorative arts. Numerous ascensions and landmarks occurred over the next few years: the first female aeronaut, who sang arias over Lyons; the first free flights in Italy, the United States, and England; a flight that lasted 4 hours and traveled more than 160 miles; and the first Channel crossing from England to France.

In 1785 Pilâtre de Rozier, the intrepid copilot of the first manned hot-air balloon flight, planned to traverse the Channel in the opposite direction. For this feat, underwritten by the French government at vast expense, he devised an elaborate Aéro-Montgolfière, a tandem balloon that merged the hot-air and hydrogen systems. Replying to those who warned him of the extreme hazard of such a combination, he argued that the flaming brazier was installed far enough from the flammable gas to avoid the danger of explosion. Soon after takeoff, though, while the balloon was still battling contrary winds near the shore, it caught on fire and crashed, killing him and his passenger.

In their race for the skies the Montgolfier brothers and Jacques Charles had proved that air and gas could lift people far above the earth.  The first fatalities of the new era of human flight, however, showed the hazards of relying on such elusive, invisible substances. Nevertheless, balloons continued to rise, eventually developing into airplanes and even spaceships. Once attained, the ancient dream of flying would not be renounced.