Robert Brothers and the First Balloon Flight of Over 100km

The first flight of more than 100 km (about 63 miles) took place on Sunday, 19 September 1784. It was conducted by two brothers — Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert — known collectively as Les Frères Robert (Robert brothers). Their aerostatic experiment, as it was called, launched from the royal gardens of the Tuileries Palace. It was a widely acclaimed event and attended by thousands of spectators. One report about the event was published in the Derby Mercury on 30 September 1784 and titled, “Paris Intelligence. Areostation.” The article is provided below, almost verbatim.

Robert brothers

September 1784 flight lifting off from the Gardens of Tuileries. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

“The third aerostatic experiment of the brothers Robert, … was attended with complete success. Mons. Vallet, to whom the brothers committed the charge of filling the Globe, began the business on Saturday afternoon. He employed new apparatus, constructed on the most ingenious and simple principles; by means of which the balloon was amply filled in three hours. The operation would not have required more than an hour and a half, if the workmen had been accustomed to the new method. 

Another Illustration of the September 19, 1784, Lift Off, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Another illustration of the September 1784, lift off. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As it was the intention of the brothers to make this voyage accessary to Science, they took great pains to establish a set of signals between themselves and those appointed to observe them. It was settled that persons should be stationed at different places for the purpose of observation; and that they might all communicate together as to time, and, to measure the Angels of Vision, it was agreed that a nine o’clock in the morning, a red flag should be hoisted on top of the dome of the castle of the Tuileries, which, after remaining for a time, that the observers might take the height, should be lowered on the firing of a cannon, exactly half an hour before the departure of the balloon — that five minutes after this, a small quantity of powder should be flashed from the top of the dome, as a signal for them to observe their watches — and that this should be repeated twice at the internal of a minute, lest the first should not be perceived — that at the second discharge of the cannon, which was to be the signal for the ascension, the red flag should be hoisted again; and that when the travellers had brought the machine to an equilibrium in the air, they sho’d suffer it for some minutes to be borne along in the atmosphere by the direction of the wind — and that then, on a fresh signal, they should put their oars and wings in motion, and use their utmost efforts to navigate the machine against the wind, and to see how many points they could steer from it.

(Top to Bottom and Left to Right) Marechal de Richlieu, Marchal de Biron, Bailli de Suffern, and Duc de Chaulnes, Public Domain

(Top to bottom and left to right) Marechal de Richlieu, Marchal de Biron, Bailli de Suffern, and Duc de Chaulnes. Public domain.

These preliminaries being settled, at half an hour after eleven o’clock the aerostatic Globe was conducted with great pomp by the gate of the grand walk to the terrace prepared for it opposite the castle. The four cords were held by four of the most distinguished persons in the kingdom:  M. le Marechal de Richlieu, M. le Marchal de Biron, M. le Bailli de Suffren, and M. le Duc de Chaulnes

When it came to the terrace, the three travellers, viz, the Robert Brothers, … M. Colin-Hullin, [and] their brother-in-law, took their seats in the car; and after the necessary experiments to prove and rectify their weight, the machine rose into the atmosphere exactly two minutes before twelve o’clock, amidst the acclamations of a most numerous and brilliant assembly.

Robert Brothers Descending at the Prince de Ghistelles', Public Domain

Les Frères Robert descending at the Prince de Ghistelles’. Public domain.

After having travelled at the same height about forty-five minutes, they descended near the apparent horizon, almost to the earth, and ascended again immediately. At fifty-seven minutes past twelve they descended again, and mounted in an instant. At thirteen minutes past one they descended a third time, and were for a minute lost behind the hills which bound the horizon towards St. Prix. They were observed on their re-ascension, and it was ascertained that on every new elevation they mounted higher than in the preceding one. At this time they appeared about a degree and a half above the horizon, which, estimating their distance at ten or twelve leagues, states their actual height to be between five and six hundred toises [a fathom or six feet]. At fifty minutes past one they disappeared from the best glasses. The wind at their departure was southeast but it became soon after more southerly. The balloon evidently went with the wind, both at first and after its change. They bore at first to the left from the observer at the Tuileries, and afterwards veered considerably to the right.

The Messrs. and their fellow traveller M. Hullins returned to Paris on Thursday the 24th. They have given notice that they will in the course of a few days, publish a detail of their experiments and observations. In the mean time we have the following particulars: They descended exactly at forty minutes past six at the Beuvry, near Bethune, 150 miles from Paris [in northern France]. They went this very long journey in six hours and forty minutes. Beuvry is the Residence of the Prince de Ghistelles, and of the Prince de Ricebourg, his son.

Map Showing Approximate Distance From Paris to Beauvry, Courtesy of Google Maps

Map showing approximate distance from Paris to Beauvry. Courtesy of Google Maps.

It so happened that the Prince and his son had been engaged that very afternoon in giving a splendid entertainment to the tenantry and neighbours, in which among other pleasure circumstances they had launched a Montgolfiere, a balloon filled with rarefied air thirty feet high, and which had been attended with compleat success. The Company were beginning to separate, when the Roberts came in sight. This unexpected spectacle excited the most general shout; and with the most clamorous voices they called out to the travellers to alight in that spot. The brothers thought it an eligible place, and they descended; in coming down they were very near striking their machine against a mill, and to avoid this, they exercised their oars, and with an admirable manoeuvre made a semi-circle in the full view of the assembly, and within thirty feet of the ground; by this means they landed in the center of the field.When the people heard that they had come from Paris since noon, they exclaimed with one voice, “vive Roberts!” and they conducted them to the castle of the Prince of Ghistelles, by whom they were received with marks of the greatest delight. They were crowned both in the castle of the prince and in the city of Bethune. At the latter place the Marquis de Gouy, who was there with his regiment in garrison, gave a grand fete on the Monday in honour of the brothers.

They procured the following certificate of their descent:

By the Royal Notaries of Artois subscribed Mgr. Philippe — Alexandre — Emmanuel — Francois — Joseph, Prince of Ghistelles — Ricebourg, Grandee of Spain of the first rank—Seignior of Beuvry, &c. &c. and Mgr. Philippe — Alexandre — Louis — Marie — Joseph — Charles — Florent de Ghistelles — Prince of Ricebourg, his son, do certify and attest, that the Messieurs Roberts and Monsieur Hullin descended with perfect ease and facility in their presence on the right of Beuvry Plain, distant from Paris fifty leagues that on approaching a mill which stands near the High Road, leading from Bethune to Lisle in Flanders, they agitated their oars, and described a semi-circle, by which they descended in the middle of the Plain yesterday, the 19th instant, at forty minutes past six in the afternoon. — That after their descent at our desire, they raised themselves again to the height of about 200 feet, and descended again immediately, having at the same time several bags of sand in their car — that the subscribers having engaged to see their aerostat carried to Beauvry Castle, they were obliged, on account of the intervening trees, the houses, and the coming on of the night, to empty the machine of the inflammable air.

Given and attested at the desire of the Messers. Robert and Hullin, at Beauvry Castle, this 20 September, 1784.

La Prince de Ghistelles Richebourg, Le Prince Richebourg, Lereux at Leroy, Gottram, Grand Bailli”

References:

  • “Parisian Intelligence. Aerostation,” in Derby Mercury, 30 September 1784

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