Question: What two brothers invented the first human-carrying flight technology? (Hint: it’s not the Wright brothers)
Answer: The Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon
Almost a century before the Wright brothers were even born, a different set of siblings were the first to invent human-carrying flight technology. The invention? The hot air balloon—the vessel for which many flying “firsts” would take place, including the first flights in Europe and North America. French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier became internationally known when they invented the hot air balloon and conducted the first successful flight over France’s countryside.
As prosperous paper manufacturers, the Montgolfier brothers began experimenting with the design of a paper balloon when they observed that heated air directed into a paper or fabric bag would rise. Supposedly the brothers also took inspiration from watching Joseph’s wife’s skirts billowing in the kitchen from the heat of a charcoal burner used for drying laundry. They built a balloon 33 feet in diameter made of silk and paper, and after several successful tests, they decided to publicly demonstrate the invention.
On June 4, 1783, they launched the balloon (with no one on board) from the Annonay, France marketplace—a small town just south of Lyon. Surrounded by a crowd of dignitaries, the balloon rose 5,200 to 6,600 feet and stayed afloat for 10 minutes, traveling about a mile away. The successful flight mesmerized crowds and word of such a feat traveled quickly to the King of France—King Louis XVI—and a demonstration in front of the royal court was prepared.
The Montgolfier brothers enlisted the help of Jean-Baptiste Reveillion, a successful wallpaper manufacturer, who helped to construct the balloon out of taffeta and a varnish of alum for fireproofing. He decorated it with lavish golden flourishes and zodiac signs and suns to pay homage to the French monarch. There was concern over the effect of altitude on humans, so the Montgolfiers decided to test the flight with a sheep, duck, and rooster in the basket.
On September 19, 1783, from the Palace of Versailles, the balloon and animals lifted off in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the royal court, and a crowd of 130,000 people. The flight lasted eight minutes and flew about two miles before landing safely, with the farm animals unharmed inside.
Finally, the balloon technology was tested with humans on board, and on November 21, 1783, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, a teacher, and Marquis d’Arlandes, a French military officer, made the first free ascent in a hot air balloon, flying over Paris. Benjamin Franklin was in the crowd of marveling spectators that day, and documented the occasion in his journal writing, “we observed it lift off in the most majestic manner…we could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”
By January of 1784, an even larger balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers successfully carried seven passengers in the air and thus beginning the obsession with ballooning among the society’s wealthy class. The technology spread across Europe and to the United States with pilots competing to accomplish new feats first, such as the first flight across the English Channel.
While today we have planes to carry us far distances, hot air balloons still remain as romantic ways to see sweeping aerial views of the most beautiful locations on earth. The technology that was discovered nearly 250 years ago is still used today to give us the best vantage point on the planet—from France to Turkey, and the plains of Africa.
10 Fun Facts About the History of Hot Air Ballooning:
- Hot air balloons were not just the first human-carrying flight, but they were also the first flight across the English Channel, the first flight in North America, and the first aircraft-related disaster.
- At first, the Montgolfier brothers believed they had discovered a new gas that was lighter than air and caused the balloons to rise. They called it the Montgolfier gas, however, it was actually just heated air.
- Before settling on using a sheep, duck, and rooster in the flight, King Louis XVI suggested flying prisoners in the balloon in case there were any fatalities.
- Francois Pilatre de Rozier, the first pilot, was also the first crash victim of a flight when two years later he attempted to cross the English Channel with a balloon of half hot air, half hydrogen. Unfortunately, 30 minutes after take-off, the balloon exploded, killing him and his co-pilot.
- In 1808, two Frenchmen dueled in hot air balloons over Paris for the love of a celebrated opera dancer. The men took to the skies in the duel and shot at each other’s balloons. One of the balloons was punctured and crashed to the ground, killing the man. The other man landed safely on the ground and presumably took the hand of the dancer.
- As hot air balloons became a trend among the wealthy French, farmers did not like them landing among the open farmland and crushing their crops. To smooth things over, aristocrats began giving champagne to farmers when they landed, beginning the tradition of drinking champagne after landing a hot air balloon.
- In 1794, balloons were used for aerial observation during the French Revolution in order to best scout out enemy positions during combat.
- The American Civil War also briefly had a balloon corps established by Abraham Lincoln to spy on enemy movement. However, it was disbanded in 1863 as the giant balloons made for easy targets for enemies to shoot down.
- During the 1800s and 1900s, traveling fairs often featured a daredevil performance involving balloons. A stuntman wearing a parachute would be attached to a basket-less balloon and shot into the air. When the balloon reached the highest point, the stuntman would detach and open his parachute, landing among the delighted crowd below.
- One theory suggests that Peru’s mysterious Nazca Lines were created by hot air balloons. The theory was created in the 1970s and stated that ancient Peruvians drew the giant figures in the sand with the help of hot air balloons. Some of the ancient pottery is believed to depict images of ballooning, but the theory has largely been discredited.
Explore the history and beauty of the French countryside that hot air ballooners once marveled at from above during New! French Impressions: From the Loire Valley to Lyon & Paris.