In the late 1700 and early 1800s, there were a number of firsts related to ballooning. All of these first caused an excited public to embrace what was called “balloonmania.” Clothing was printed with balloon images and fashions were styled au ballon that included rounded skirts and huge puffed-sleeved dresses. Hair was also coiffed à la montgolfier, au demi-ballon, or à la Blanchard. In addition, women began wearing what was called the “balloon hat,” described by one person as “worn low down on one side, and high on the other.”
Dresses, hair, and hats were not the only items that sported a balloon theme. People could buy almost anything decorated with images of balloons. For instance, numerous engravings were printed to commemorate balloon flights, chairs were designed with balloon backs, and silver and pewter plates were engraved with balloons, as were all sorts of snuff boxes. There were also the following items:
“cups and saucers, sugar-bowls, water-pitchers of all epochs, a vase in shape like a Japanese saké-bottle, a tiny drum of ancient form, silver candlesticks, miniatures, and jewelry set in brilliants, a cane, a sword, silver-handled knives, … exquisitely painted fans, long gloves, brass escutcheons, and ivory carvings — … all exhibiting in one form or another the thought of balloon voyaging or navigating the air in some manner.”
Some firsts related to ballooning were accomplished with a hot air balloon and other firsts related to ballooning were accomplished with a hydrogen balloon. That is where the confusion comes in when related to balloon firsts. (If you are interested in learning the differences between a hot air balloon and a gas or hydrogen balloon, click here). To understand all these ballooning firsts, I’ve divided the firsts into hot air balloon firsts and hydrogen balloon firsts.
Hot Air Balloons Firsts
The first known flight of any balloon was flown on 14 December 1782. It was a hot air balloon flown by the Montgolfier brothers — Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Joseph-Michel was the first to gain an interest in ballooning and he recruited his brother to help him build a balloon by writing:
“Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.”
They achieved their flight by “burning a heap of damp straw mixed with wool underneath the machine,” and it floated about 1.2 miles before it was destroyed upon landing.
Another of the firsts related to ballooning also involves the Montgolfier Brothers. It happened when they performed the first public demonstration of a manless hot air balloon ascending in Annoay, France, on 4 June 1783. Their ascent was watched by a group of dignitaries from the États particuliers. This balloon was globe-shaped and created of sackcloth tightened with three thin layers of paper inside and constructed of four pieces (the dome and three lateral bands) and held together by 1,800 buttons. A reinforcing fish net of cord covered the outside of the envelope.
On 19 September 1783, the Montgolfier’s balloon that rose achieved another first. This time the balloon held live beings: a duck, rooster, and sheep called Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”). The animals went aloft after being enclosed in a large wicker cage fastened beneath the balloon. A wallpaper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, had assisted by richly decorating it, and it had a deep blue background, gold figures, fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns with Louis XVI’s face in the center interlaced with the royal monogram. At the base of the balloon were red and blue drapery and golden eagles. This amazing flight took place at the Palace of Versailles with King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette witnessing its ascent. In fact, thousands of people witnessed this flight that lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles, and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet. It was considered a huge success as it landed safely with its animal inhabitants being no worse for having gone aloft.
After the success of animals rising into the sky, the honor of being the first person to lift off in a tethered hot air balloon and become the first human in the sky belongs to a Montgolfier. Jacques-Étienne went into the sky because he brother Joseph-Michel was too shy. It was reported that Jacques-Étienne rose into the sky on 15 October 1783 in a balloon that was about 75 feet tall and about 50 feet in diameter. He probably left from the workshop yard of Réveillon that was located in Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
After Montgolfier’s successful manned tethered flight in a hot air balloon, it would be several months before the first manned unthethered flight in a hot air balloon occurred. The honor of this ascent belongs to Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes who lifted off on 21 November 1783. They left in a balloon that Jacques-Étienne created. Louis XVI originally wanted criminals to the be the first to ascend, just in case something went wrong, but Rozier and d’Arlandes convinced him otherwise. Thus, they became the first humans to ascend in a hot air balloon untethered.
Men weren’t the only humans going into the sky. A French woman named Élisabeth Thible (or Tible) was the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon. She did so on 4 June 1784 and flew to Lyons with a Mr. Fleurant in a hot air balloon. The balloon was christened La Gustave after King Gustave III of Sweden that honored his visit to Lyons. Initially, Fleurant was planning on taking Count Jean-Baptiste de Laurencin, but the count graciously gave his spot to Thible. During the flight, Thible assisted Fleurant by feeding the fire-box. Their landing was not the smoothest as it was bumpy and the basket hit the ground hard, causing Thible to sprain her ankle.
Hydrogen Balloon Firsts
That first manless hydrogen balloon ascent occurred on 26 August 1783. It was conducted by the Jacques Charles and two engineering brothers — Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert — known collectively as Les Frères Robert (Robert brothers). The balloon rose successfully and traveled until it landed in a Gonesse village. At the time, many people had no idea about balloons and so when terrified villagers saw something coming out of the sky, they attacked it with their hoes and shovels believing it to be a monster. To learn more about this balloon monster, click here.
On 1 December 1783 the first manned hydrogen flight occurred. This balloon lifted off from the garden of the Tuileries Palace, with Charles and Nicolas-Louis aboard. The balloon chasers, who were on horse back, were led by the Duke of Chartres (later called the Duke of Orléans and still later known as Philippe Égalité). After landing, Nicolas-Louis descended from the balloon, but Charles decided to ascend again and reentered the balloon. Unfortunately, the balloon had lost some hydrogen and ascended too rapidly causing Charles to suffer severe pain in his ear. He descended again and landed safely but never flew again.
Another of the firsts related to ballooning involves the daredevil of the sky, Vincenzo Lunardi. He gained fame as the first aerial traveler in England and also earned the nickname “daredevil aeronaut.” His historic flight took place on 15 September 1784 at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company and involved a cat as his companion. Taking the helpless cat on his balloon adventure resulted in various cat lovers criticizing him. However, his air-sick cat survived and so did he. In fact, his landing spot can still be found today and is marked by a stone plinth and known as “Balloon Corner.”
Although Lunardi was the first person to ascend in England, the first Englishman to ascend was James Sadler. He ascended in a hot air balloon 4 October 1784 from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford. He was an unlikely aeronaut as he was poorly educated and had worked as a pastry cook and confectioner. No one saw his first flight as he was no showman, but his description of the 6-mile flight and an article written by a contemporary, William Jackson, a person unlikely to allow any falsehoods to appear in his newspaper, make it believable. Moreover, on 12 November when Sadler’s second flight occurred, this time in a hydrogen-filled balloon, there were plenty of witnesses who saw him travel more than 20 miles in an astounding 17 minutes.
The Robert brothers achieved another balloon first. They were the first to ascend over 100km. It happened on 19 September 1784 and was a widely acclaimed event. This balloon launched from the gardens of the Tuileries Palace. After this feat, a certificate was procured detailing their success and among those who signed their certificate having witnessed their flight were many important dignitaries, including Joseph, Prince of Ghistelles.
Of course, with all the balloons traversing the sky, there were bound to be accidents. The first fatal hot air balloon accident occurred on 15 June 1785. It was a balloon piloted by Rozier and Pierre Romain who had been attempting for some time to be the first aeronauts to cross the English Channel. However, as they were struggling to be the first, another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and his American companion, Dr John Jeffries, succeeded in crossing the channel in a hydrogen gas balloon on 7 January 1785. Rozier and Romain still decided to attempt to cross the English Channel using a combination hydrogen and hot air balloon. They left from the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer around seven o’clock in the morning, but from the start there were problems. Ultimately, the two intrepid adventures were dashed to pieces.
Another of the firsts related to ballooning was the first air duel that took place between two jealous Frenchmen. It happened on 3 May 1808. The duelists were fighting over a lady that both were hoping to win. Unfortunately, only one balloon duelist survived. You can learn more about this unusual incident by clicking here.
There was also the first woman who flew solo in a hydrogen balloon. Her name was Sophie Blanchard. She was married to the famous pioneer balloonist Blanchard mentioned above. Sophie’s first flight happened 27 December 1804 when she ascended with her husband from Marseilles. Although she was not the first female balloonist to ascend into the sky, she became a favorite balloonist of Napoleon Bonaparte‘s. In 1804, he appointed her to replace balloonist André-Jacques Garnerin, who was also a famous parachutist. Sophie performed many special ascents in Napoleon’s honor, such as when he married Marie-Louise, at the birth of his son, and at his 42nd birthday. Besides being favored by Napoleon, Sophie was also the first female to adopt a career as a balloonist.
-  Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, Vol. 1, 1887, p. 236-237.
-  The Nation, Volume 71, 1900, p. 47.
-  Kotar, S.L. and J.E. Gessler, Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900, 2010, p. 10.
-  The New Monthly Magazine, 1852, p. 200.