Balloon Flight: The First Humans in an Untethered Balloon

The first hot-air balloon flight occurred in June of 1783, and the first hydrogen balloon flight happened on 27 August 1783. The hydrogen balloon had been created and launched by Professor Jacques Charles and and two engineering brothers — Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert — known collectively as Les Frères Robert (Robert brothers), who invented the lightweight, airtight gas bag. Before their hydrogen balloon lifted off in August, the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier noticed the basket underneath the balloon and made a proposition to King Louis XVI that he wanted to go up with the balloon. The king was so horrified, “he nearly lost his appetite, and absolutely forbade so a rash a venture.”[1]

First Humans in an Untethered Balloon Flight

World’s first manned hydrogen balloon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Louis XVI’s misgivings about men flying in balloons, he was intrigued by the idea of balloons floating through the sky. He therefore held a grand fete to celebrate a lift off at Versailles that carried no humans. It did however have aboard a duck, sheep, and rooster as its passengers. The flight happened on 19 September 1783 and everyone was there including Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duke of Chartres (later the Duke of Orleans and still later called Philippe Égalité). The flight lasted just 8 minutes, covered 2 miles, and obtained a height of about 1,500 feet.

The 19 September lift off was soon followed by the first human-manned tethered flight aboard a hot air balloon. It occurred on 15 October 1783 and was manned by Rozier, a manufacture manager named Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, and Giroud de Villette. The lift off took place 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.

Tethered Flight, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tethered flight. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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 hot air balloon. 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. He decided the honor of becoming the first persons to ascend into the sky in an untethered balloon should belong to someone other than criminals and thus, the flight with Rozier and d’Arlandes was scheduled for 21 November 1783.

The balloon to achieve this wondrous feat was to be the grandest balloon thus far created by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne. They were paper manufacturers from Annonay, France and became best known as inventors of the Montgolfier-style hot air balloon.

“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.”[2]

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. Nonetheless, the decision was made that 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. The Hereford Journal provided details about the exciting event:

“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.”[3]

The balloon was filled a second time and at 1:54pm it rose from the château’s garden again. 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 many Parisian witnessed 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.

Balloon flight on 21 November 1783. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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.”[4] The King’s cousin, the Duke of Chartres, was so impressed by the feat, it was reported:

“[He] 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.” [5]


  • [1]The Kansas City Print Library Quarterly, Volumes 7-10, 1907, p. 81.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] —, in Hereford Journal, 11 December 1783, p. 4.
  • [4] “Paris, Nov. 28,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 13 December 1783, p. 1.
  • [5] Ibid.

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