Early Air Balloon Experiments

The Conquest of Air

Air Balloon Experiment
French aeronauts Jacques Charles (1746-1823) and Noel Robert made the first manned (free flight) ascent in a hydrogen balloon, designed by Charles, a physics professor, and constructed by Robert and his brother Jean. It took off in front of a crowd of 400,000, landing two hours later at Nesle-la-Vallee, over 27 miles away. Print Collector / Getty Images

First Air Balloon Flights

In 1783, the most popular man in Europe was the United States ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, with his calm eyes peering through the bifocals of his own invention, projected an air of great learning. Indeed, curiosity was one of the driving forces in his life. During his time in France, Franklin often abandoned his post at the embassy to watch the trials of a new invention called the air balloon.

On November 21, 1783, crowds arrived at the gardens of the French King's hunting lodge in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris, to witness an experiment. Two daring Frenchmen, Pilatre de Rozier of the Royal Academy and his friend, the Marquis d'Arlandes, were planning to ascend in a Montgolfier air balloon, and to become the first people in history to do so. 

At six minutes to two, the aeronauts entered the car of their balloon; and, at a height of two hundred and seventy feet, waved their hats and saluted the applauding spectators. Then the wind carried them away towards Paris. About half a mile from the starting point, the balloon began to descend over the River Seine; but when they fed the fire under their sack of hot air with chopped straw they rose to the elevation of five hundred feet. Safely across the river they dampened the fire with a sponge and made a gentle descent in Paris.

At five o'clock that afternoon, at the King's Chateau in the Bois de Boulogne, the members of the Royal Academy signed a memorial of the event. One of the spectators asked Benjamin Franklin, "What does Doctor Franklin conceive to be the use of this new invention?" "What is the use of a new-born child?" was Franklin's reply.

The invention of the air balloon was only five months old, however, there were already two types of craft: the original Montgolfier bothers balloon, or fire balloon, inflated with hot air, and a modification by Jacques Charles, inflated with hydrogen gas.

Like the Moon

The majority of the French people did not welcome the presence of giant air balloons above them. French soldiers were often ordered to protect the balloons. The fear of the people was so great that the Government issued a proclamation, explaining the invention that stated that anyone seeing a globe, "like the moon in an eclipse," should be aware that it was only a bag made of taffeta or light canvas covered with paper and "could not possibly cause any harm and would someday serve society."

Montgolfier Balloon

Benjamin Franklin wrote a description of the Montgolfier air balloon to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London:

"Its bottom was open and in the middle of the opening was fixed a kind of basket grate, in which faggots and sheaves of straw were burnt. The air, rarefied in passing through this flame, rose in the balloon, swelled out its sides, and filled it.

The persons, who were placed in the gallery made of wicker and attached to the outside near the bottom, had each of them a port through which they could pass sheaves of straw into the grate to keep up the flame and thereby keep the balloon full.

One of these courageous philosophers, the Marquis d'Arlandes, did me the honor to call upon me in the evening after the experiment, with Montgolfier, the very ingenious inventor. I was happy to see him safe. He informed me that they lit gently, without the least shock, and the balloon was very little damaged."

Benjamin Franklin also wrote in his journals how the competition between the Montgolfier brothers and George Cayley had hastened the progress of the air balloon. Franklin saw air balloons as a discovery of great importance, one that might possibly give a new turn to human affairs by convincing heads of state of the folly of war. However, Benjamin Franklin urged the inventors to immediately invent a way to steer the new air balloons, which traveled in the direction of the prevailing wind.

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Bellis, Mary. "Early Air Balloon Experiments." ThoughtCo, Nov. 18, 2016, thoughtco.com/conquest-of-air-1991233. Bellis, Mary. (2016, November 18). Early Air Balloon Experiments. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/conquest-of-air-1991233 Bellis, Mary. "Early Air Balloon Experiments." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/conquest-of-air-1991233 (accessed September 22, 2017).