Monday 26 August 2013

The Story of the Montgolfiere Balloon

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (Annonay, Ardèche, France, 26th August 1740 – Balaruc-les-Bains, France, 26th June 1810)
Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (Annonay, Ardèche, France, 6th January 1745 – Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 2nd August 1799)

Engraving of the Montgolfier Brothers

On the day she heard of the first hot air balloon flight, my old grandmother Gilflurt put on her heaviest shoes and declared that, if God had meant us to fly, he would have given us feathers somewhere other than on our hats. I'm not so sure I agree with that and to be honest, she is given to the odd bout of battiness anyway. Today we're celebrating the birthday of one half of the famed Montgolfier brothers so it's time to go back to France but without a guillotine in sight.

The brothers who would make their names in the air were born into down to earth surroundings, joining a family of papermakers and fourteen other siblings. From childhood the boys were like the faces of a coin, Joseph a creative dreamer and the younger Étienne a born businessman who eventually took over the family paper business. Under his management the firm went from strength to strength and the already considerable fortunes of the Montgolfiers were raised still further. He introduced new engineering innovations, winning praise from the government as the Montgolfier paper business was held up as an example of a model to French industry.

Illustration of the Montgolfier flight

Whilst his brother was a practical man, Joseph often found his mind drifting in contemplation of some new invention or innovation, sometimes finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. Whilst watching washing drying above an open fire in 1777 he was fascinated by the way the linen was blown upwards, observing that wood chips were buoyed by the flames. He immediately began contemplating the uses for such a discovery and began conducting small experiments into the properties of heat.

Five years later he undertook his first serious experiments into the use of hot air for buoyancy, hoping that this new technology might be used to power airborne military assaults. He built a box with a roof and floor of cloth and found that, by lighting a fire beneath it, he could induce it to float. Joseph was incredibly excited by the results of his experiments and wrote of the gas he wrongly believed was contained in smoke, which he named Montgolfier gas. From small-scale beginnings the brothers conducted larger experiments and were able to replicate their successes.

Mindful that others might also be following a simple path, the brothers decided that they must make a public showing of their findings, settling on building a Montgolfiere balloon that was then flown at Annonay. The balloon was aloft for ten minutes and the brothers were invited to Paris to repeat the demonstration. However, the shy Joseph elected not to participate, leaving Étienne to perform the demonstration.

Plans for the Montgolfier Balloon

The brothers were the toast of the city and capitalised on their success by moving on to even greater things, constructing an ornate 37,500-cubic-foot balloon of sky blue. Although Louis XVI was all for sending up convicts on that first flight the brothers instead elected to load the basket with a sheep, a duck and a rooster. An excited crowd gathered at Versailles and witnessed as the first living beings took to the air, remaining aloft for almost ten minutes before making a safe landing.

Spurred on by this new success, Joseph and Étienne developed an even larger, far grander balloon decorated with royal symbolism. The ornate creation was first tested by Ètienne in a tethered flight but the first humans to fly in an untethered balloon were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (later the first man to die in a balloon accident) and François Laurent, marquis d'Arlandes. As the Montgolfiere balloon lifted into the air from the grounds of the Château de la Muette on 21st November 1783, a stunned crowd watched the men float high above Paris and out over the city walls before Pilâtre ended the flight, concerned by the way the fire was scorching the balloon. Despite this the people of France were thrilled and the merchandisers went to town feeding the public hunger from commemorative items, with the King bestowing honours on the Montgolfier family.

Illustration of the Montgolfier flight

Hailed as national heroes, the two brothers were honoured by the French Académie des Sciences and became leading authorities in the French scientific community; today their names are forever linked with innovation in flight, not a bad legacy for two boys from Annonay.


Place to stand... said...

Beautiful post and well researched and fabulous writing - thank you as ever - made my Saturday morning.

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure; thank you for your lovely comment!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting bit of history.