First Humans in an Untethered Balloon Flight

First Humans in an Untethered Balloon Flight
World’s First Manned Hydrogen Balloon, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The first hydrogen balloon lift off occurred 27 August 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers — Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. A few weeks later the first manned flight occurred, and because the French King, Louis XVI, had been intrigued by the idea of balloon flight, he held a grand fete to celebrate the lift off. The event was held on 19 September 1783 at Versailles, and in attendance for the lift off was the King and the Queen, as well as thousands of spectators.

Before the balloon lifted off, the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier noticed the basket underneath the balloon and made a proposition to the King. He wanted to go up with the balloon. Louis XVI was so horrified that Rozier wanted to go up in the balloon, “he nearly lost his appetite, and absolutely forbade so a rash a venture.” So, when the balloon lifted off from the Versailles courtyard it carried no humans. It did however have a duck, sheep, and rooster as its passengers. The flight lasted just 8 minutes, covered 2 miles, and obtained a height of about 1,500 feet.

Tethered Flight, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Tethered Flight, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The 19 September lift off was soon followed by the first human-manned tethered flight. It occurred on 15 October 1783 and was manned by Rozier, a manufacture manager named Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, and Giroud de Villette. It occurred at a country home that had been turned into a royal manufacture for wallpaper, known as Folie Titon. The tethered flight was successful, but the King remained so nervous about what could happen if man ascended into the sky, he decreed only condemned criminals could be the first pilots to go untethered into the air.

Despite the King’s decree, Rozier and a soldier named the Marquis François d’Arlandes, petitioned the King for the honor to be the first humans in an untethered balloon flight. Madame de Polignac, a favorite of Marie Antoinette’s, also sided with Rozier and d’Arlandes, and with her aid, the King had second thoughts and decided the honor of becoming the first persons to ascend into the sky in an untethered balloon should belong to someone other than criminals. Thus, the flight with Rozier and d’Arlandes was scheduled for 21 November 1783, and the balloon was to be the grandest balloon thus far created by the Montgolfier brothers:

It was a gorgeous affair, seventy feet high and forty-six feet in diameter, with a capacity of 60,000 cubic feet. Below the opening was attached to the cords a gallery three feet wide, with a three-foot parapet. An iron grating was built across the mouth of the bag on which fresh fire could kindled when fresh gas was needed. The upper part of the bag was adorned with embroidered fleur-de-lis and with the twelve signs of the zodiac worked in gold.

First untethered balloon flight, by Rozier and d'Arlandes on 21 November 1783, Courtesy of Wikipedia
First Untethered Balloon Flight, by Rozier and d’Arlandes on 21 November 1783, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The 21st of November was not particularly the best day for a lift off. The sky was loaded with heavy clouds and there were irregular winds. However, the decision was made the balloon should ascend, and lift off from the garden of the Chateau de la Muette, located in the Bois de Boulogne. It was a momentous occasion, and onlookers included the King, Queen, and the coon-skin cap wearing American envoy, Benjamin Franklin. A newspaper provided the following description:

The first intention was to make the machine rise, and at the same time to hold it with ropes for the purpose of examining the exact weight it was able to carry, and whether every thing was properly contrived and arranged for the grand trial. But the machine being pushed off by the wind, far from rising vertically, took its direction over one of the walks in the garden, and the ropes, that held it, acting with too much resistance; occasioned several rents one of which was more than six feet in length. Being brought back, they repaired it in less than two hours.

The balloon was filled a second time and at 1:54 p.m. it rose from the château’s garden. The balloon rose quickly and at about 250 feet, the aeronauts shook their hats and saluted the spectators. As the balloon continued to rise, the aeronauts were soon too small to see, although the balloon could still be seen on the horizon. It eventually crossed the Seine and passed the Ecole Militaire, so that many Parisian could see it floating in the sky. Moreover, it traveled slowly: The flight only lasted 25 minutes, went 5 1/2 miles to the southeast, and gained an altitude of about 3,000 feet.

The aeronauts having made a successful flight decided to descend and landed at the Butte-aux-Cailles, which at the time was on the outskirts of Paris. After their flight, the aeronauts were interviewed and claimed not to have felt ” the least disagreeable sensation, even when they were at the highest.” The Duke of Chartres (later the Duke of Orleans and still later called Philippe Égalité) was so impressed by the feat, it was reported:

“[The Duke of Orleans] resolved to erect a pyramid upon the spot where the ball alighted, and thereon to inscribe the names of Montgolfier, who constructed the airy vehicle, together with … the two bold travellers, who dared to a journey to the third region of air.”  

References:

  • —, in Hereford Journal, 11 December 1783
  • “Paris, Nov. 28,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 13 December 1783
  • The Kansas City Print Library Quarterly, Volumes 7-10, 1907
  • The Scots Magazine, 01 November 1784

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