The 18th Century’s First Fatal Balloon Accident

First Ascension in a Free Balloon by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, Courtesy of mheu.org
First Ascension in a Free Balloon by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, Courtesy of mheu.org

The first air hot balloon of manned flight occurred in a balloon belonging to the Montgolfier brothers on 21 November 1783. This flight left from the garden of the Château de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne with pilots, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, and covered about 5½ miles in 25 minutes. It landed between windmills on the Butte-aux-Cailles.

Rozier decided to leave the ground again on 23 June 1784. This time he was accompanied by Joseph Proust, an actor and a French chemist. The June flight involved a modified version of the Montgolfier’s first balloon, and it was christened La Marie-Antoinette after the French Queen. The balloon took off in front of the King of France and King Gustav III of Sweden. It flew north at an altitude of approximately 1.8 miles and traveled over 32 miles in 45 minutes. The cold and turbulence forced the balloonists to descend just past Luzarches, which is near the Chantilly forest. However, the flight was still amazing because it set records for speed, altitude, and distance traveled.

Pilatre de Rozier, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Pilâtre de Rozier, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Because of his ballooning success, Rozier decided to try something even more daring. This time he planned on crossing the English Channel between France and England. However, Rozier realized the Montgolfier’s hot air balloon was incapable of making the flight because a large stock of fuel was needed, and, so, Rozier’s balloon was created. It was a hybrid balloon with separate chambers for a non-heated lifting gas (such as hydrogen or helium) and a heated lifting gas (similar to what was used in the Montgolfier’s balloons). The flight was planned for the autumn of 1784. Unfortunately, before Rozier and his companion, Pierre Romain, could make it into the air and across the English Channel, another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and an American doctor named John Jeffries, made the flight using a hydrogen gas balloon on 7 January 1785.

Balloon of De Rozier and Romain, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France
Balloon of Rozier and Romain With Curtain Fully Extended, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite Blanchard and Jeffries’s success, Rozier was not deterred as he still wanted to cross the English Channel. Finally, about five months later, on 15 June 1785, Rozier and Romain set off to cross the English Channel leaving from the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer around seven o’clock in the morning. At the time, Rozier was engaged and his fiancée, a Miss Dyer of Yorkshire, was waiting for him in England where they planned to get married immediately upon his arrival.

On the day of the lift off, many spectators were there, and one newspaper described the balloon:

“The machine which ascended … consisted of a Balloon filed with Inflammable Air, of a Spherical Form thirty-seven feet in diameter; under this Balloon a Montgolfier, or Fire Balloon was attached to the Net of the upper Balloon by a Number of Cords, which were fixed to a Hoop of a Diameter rather greater than the Montgolfier; from this Hoop the Cords descended in perpendicular Lines to the wicker Gallery which supported the and the Ballast, consisting of Brushwood, Faggots, and Staves of Casks; within these perpendicular Cords the Montgolfier was placed; it formed a moveable Curtain, composed of a very light Silk, lined with what is commonly termed Silver Paper. This Kind of Ballast was selected for the Purpose of supporting the Ascension as long as possible, by burning a small Quantity at a Time, to expel Part of the Atmospheric Air from the Air Balloon, and by that Means to gain Levity, which was increased or diminished by raising of lowering the Curtain.”

The Balloon on Fire, fatal balloon accident
The Balloon on Fire, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

From the moment the balloon lifted off, there seemed to be problems. One newspaper noted the aeronauts appeared to take the “best possible direction; when, for a few Seconds, they appeared stationary; then took a Direction to the left, towards Portee; then a contrary Direction.” It seemed as if nature was against the balloonist because the balloon was blown about three miles back in land, and this caused some witnesses to claim the aeronauts appeared to be “in a state of great discomposure and inquietude.”

Suddenly, when the balloon was about three-quarters of a mile high, it burst into fire. The accident was thought to have happened by an “electric fire communicating to the inflammable air issued from the valve [because] the instant preceding the accident, a small white cloud was observed just above the upper part of the balloon.” Witnesses reported that after the fire began the balloon fell with “incredible Velocity” and crashed near Wimereux in the Pas-de-Calais.

A letter sent to a man in Dover by a witness of the accident, stated Rozier was dead before the balloon crashed. Apparently, shortly after the fire and the balloon’s collapse, Rozier was thrown about and suffered a “violent contusion on his Breast.” Witnesses at the crash site claimed Romain breathed for a few moments after the crash but then “uttered the Exclamation — Oh, Jesu!” before expiring. In addition, one gentleman who had met and shaken hands with Rozier earlier was also present at the wreckage. He noted:

“The two intrepid Adventurers were dashed to Pieces. I was with the Bodies in half an Hour, and never saw any Thing so shocking. I examined the Bodies, but do not find any Thing broke above the Middle, so that they must have come down perpendicularly, but their Legs and Thighs are broke in many Places.

Deaths of Rozier and Romain, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Deaths of Rozier and Romain, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Several things happened after the tragedy. Louis XVI decided to honor Rozier’s ascension and ordered a monument be built at the crash site. There was also the unfortunate death of Rozier’s fiancée. She died eight days later, possibly from suicide. A number of critics also spoke out about the dangers of ballooning. For instance, one newspaper remarked:

“[T]he dreadful accident which has befallen … Rozier … and his companion, will probably give a check to the use of those dangerous machines … It is a pity they are not suppressed by Government.”

Another English newspaper was more vocal.

“With Regard to Balloons in this Country, it were a happy Thing if this Accident should put a Stop to them altogether. They only disturb Industry and collect Crowds of Pick-Pockets, and all this for the Purpose of breaking a Dog’s Bones, and making a general Holiday, without any … good Consequence to Science.”

References:

  • –, in Saunders’s News-Letter, 11 July 1785
  • “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman of Boulogne, to Mr. Fector, at Dover,” dated June 15, in Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1785
  • “Inflammable Air,” in Derby Mercury, 16 June 1785
  • “London, Tuesday, June 21,” in Reading Mercury, 27 June 1785
  • Thursday Post, in June 15, in Derby Mercury, 16 June 1785
  • “Unfortunate Aerionauts,” in Dublin Evening Post, 25 June 1785

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