The Balloon Monster in the Gonesse Community

Jacques Charles and two engineering brothers — Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert — known collectively as Les Frères Robert (Robert brothers) were the first to fly a hydrogen balloon, “which, after many weeks of incessant labor and anxiety, was floated in the air and, after some successful essays in private, was deemed ready for public exhibition.”[1] With everything readied, the day selected for the grand ascent was established for 27 August 1783,* and the place selected was the Champs de Mars, a large public greenspace in Paris, France, located in the seventh arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower to the northwest and the École Militaire to the southeast.

Jacques Charles. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

An enormous crowd of 31,000 people attended the event, including Benjamin Franklin, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, and many others. One eyewitness, a Monsieur de Feujas, recorded what happened and stated that the throngs of people were thick, with most people concentrated at the Hotel de l’Ecole Militaire. At five o’clock in the afternoon a cannon boom announced the balloon’s imminent ascent, and the enormous globe, freed from its bonds, rose with such velocity it amazed spectators and it reached “a height of 3123 feet in two minutes.”[2] It then encountered a cloud and disappeared. A few minutes later it reappeared at a higher height and then once again disappeared behind a cloud. The gazing multitude was ecstatic and a cry of success rent the air. But it was premature.

Balloon monster - world's first manned hydrogen balloon

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

The balloonists had made a mistake. At an altitude of 1500 meters, the balloon burst, a consequent of a gas explosion. The balloon floated down in Gonesse, a small community in what is now located in the northeastern suburbs of Paris. The peasants of Gonesse where unaware of Charles, the Roberts brothers, or even that balloons existed. So, when they saw a strange floating globe descending, they were immediately alarmed. Some Gonesse inhabitants thought the world had come to an end. Others believed the sun had fallen from its orbit. Still others attributed the falling and deflating globe to be some horrid monster “escaped from Hell itself.”[3]

The terrified witness fled to the nearby church for refuge, and there the priests were just as alarmed as the peasants. They had no idea what had descended upon them. They “got into their surplices, and marched forth with book, bell, and candle to exorcise the monster.”[4] As they neared the ghastly monster, it was lying sideways, and “every now and then its prostrate form was agitated by a frightful contortion as the wind shook its tattered folds.”[5] Yet, despite their fright, one brave soul, grabbed his gun, marched to a safe distance, and fired upon the unknown monster with a triumphal cry.

The bullet ripped through the monster’s side. Gas escaped and the balloon monster collapsed in a deflated mass on the ground. “Some said they heard a loud cry; others said a shape flew away; anyhow, all was over with the monster.”[6] With the balloon monster collapsed, the peasants now rushed forward and assailed it with stones, flails, sticks, scythes, and pitchforks until a fetid odor escaped and drove them temporarily backwards. In the end, “scarcely a fragment could be found,”[7] when the balloon chasers arrived seek it, what was left had been tied to a horse’s tail, who then galloped several leagues away.

A Messieurs les Souscripteurs. Allarme générale des habitants de Gonesse, occasionée par la chûte du Ballon Aréostatique de Mr. De Montgolfier.” Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette later gave this account of the Roberts brothers flight and the balloon monster:

“Saturday 30th, there was a report spread Thursday evening, that the artificial globe had fallen near St. Dennis. This day the fact is confirmed, and the person has received the promised reward; at a quarter after six, it fell at a place called Genoesse, about a league from St. Dennis, and four N.E. from Paris, at a quarter after six o’clock on the same evening it was suffered to mount in the air; the inflammable air was too strong within it, and has deceived their calculation.”[8]

*There was confusion later because some newspapers reported this happened to the Montgolfier brothers. However, it was clearly reported at the time that it was Charles and the Roberts brothers who were involved in this incident related to the balloon monster.

References:

  • [1] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. 68, 1898, p. 360.
  • [2] Turor, Christopher Hatton, Asta Castra Experiments and Adventures in the Atmosphere, 1865, p. 41.
  • [3] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, p. 360.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Temple Bar, Volume 114, 1898 , p. 116.
  • [6] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, p. 360.
  • [7] Marion, Fulgence, Wonderful Balloon Ascents, 1874, p. 45.
  • [8] “The Aerostatic Sphere,” in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 11 September 1783, p. 3.

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