The History Of Hot Air Ballooning In France

A historical look at the birth of the hot air balloons in France during the 18th century and why this sports, after enjoying enormous popularity, declined.

Hot air ballooning was born in France in 1782. Yet after achieving an astounding popularity, ballooning died in France less than three years later.

In 1782, a paper producer from Annonay, France, Joseph Montgolfier, was experimenting with capturing smoke from a chimney in an enclosed object. He tied off the collar of a shirt and filled it with the smoke. When it inflated, Montgolfier realized that this effect was caused by the hot air, not the smoke.

With his younger brother, Etienne, Montgolfier constucted a one meter square silk globe. After it was heated, this globe rose approximately 30 meters into the air in November, 1782. This event is considered to be the birth of hot air ballooning.

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier continued their experiments with larger hot air balloons over the next few months. They tried to keep these balloon launches secret but realized that they would be unable to do so because of the high visibility of the balloons. Therefore they scheduled a public launch an 800 cubic meter balloon in April 1783. This balloon rose 400 meters into the air.

Following this launch, the Montgolfier brothers improved on their hot air ballon design. They made a 900 meter balloon made of silk sewed onto paper. A gondola was hung from the balloon containing burning straw and wool. This balloon was launched on June 4, 1783 and rose an astounding 10,000 meters. Unfortunately, upon landing the burning material in the gondola completed burned the entire balloon. However, enough people had witnessed this flight that the Science Academy of France invited the Montgolfier brothers to Paris to demonstrate a hot air balloon.

The Montgolfier brothers wanted to make the first manned flight in a hot air balloon. Howevever, they had promised their father that they would never risk their lives by going up in a balloon. Although there were volunteers for the first manned flight, they first tested a flight using a duck, a rooster, and a sheep for a flight. This flight took place at Versailles on September 18, 1783 and was witnessed by King Louis XVI. Following the eight minute flight, it was seen that the animals were unharmed.

The Montgolfier brothers then pressed for a manned flight. At first, King Louis opposed the flight for humanitarian reasons but finally relented. The first passengers aboard a hot air balloon were Pilâtre de Rosier, a physicist, and a man named D'Arlandes. The gondola of the balloon they were to ride was divided into three parts. The two side parts carried the passengers and in the center was the burner that was fueled with burning straw.

The historic manned flight, rising to an altitude of 1000 meters, took place on November 21, 1783 and lasted 28 minutes. This event quickly caused quite a sensation in France. Soon another type of balloon, one using hydrogen, carried Jacques Charles, a physicist, higher and farther than the Montgolfier ballon.

There was much competition among hot air balloon designs at that time. One balloon, which was a flying boat hung from a giant hydrogen balloon was the first one to cross the English channel, going from England to France. To go in the opposite direction across the English channel, Pilâtre built a hybrid balloon using burning fuel as well as a smaller hydrogen balloon. Joseph Montgolfier warned Pilâtre that it was dangerous to have a hydrogen balloon so close to flames but Pilâtre ignored the warning.

In January, 1785, Pilâtre made his attempt to cross the English channel in the hybrid balloon. A few minutes after liftoff, the hydrogen balloon caught fire, sending the balloon plunging to earth which killed Pilâtre. Pilâtre therefore had the dubious distinction of being the first man to fly in a hot air balloon as well as being its first casualty.

The death of Pilâtre soon dampened the enthusiasm for hot air ballooning and this sport did not revive until the second half of the 20th century.

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