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Conquest of the Skies: A History of Ballooning
First Manned Flight


There is no way to know exactly what prompted Joseph Montgolfier to start experimenting with balloons, but experiment he did, along with his brother Etienne, sometime in 1792. By June of 1783, they were ready for their first public exhibition, timed to coincide with an annual meeting of the États particuliers, a group of local officials of the Vivarais. The spherical balloon had a circumference of 110 ft, held about 22,000 cubic feet, and was held together with buttons. They burned chopped straw and some wool under the opening of the balloon, and it quickly began to fill with hot, rarefied air. The flight was successful although short-lived, the balloon landing about a mile and a half away after about 10 minutes.

The science of “aerostation,” as it was first called, had begun. News of the event quickly reached Paris and set the scientific community on fire. The Académie Royale des Sciences created a commission to investigate the new science and placed Etienne Montgolfier, who had come to Paris, in charge of constructing a new balloon.

Even before the commission was created, scientists outside the Academy were at work. The geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond opened a subscription in late June to fund further aerostatic experiments, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The experiments were directed by the physicist Jacques Alexandre César Charles, who was assisted by two brothers, Anne-Jean and Marie-Noel Robert, instrument makers who had done work for Charles before.

The initial report from Annonay did not state what kind of gas was used to fill the balloon, but many assumed it was inflammable air (what we know as hydrogen), and so Charles and the Robert brothers set out to build what was the first hydrogen balloon. Thereafter, balloons that used rarefied air were called air balloons or montgolfières, and those that used inflammable air (hydrogen gas) were called gas balloons or charlières.

The first passengers were animals, but they were soon replaced by men. The first manned flight was in a montgolfière on 21 November 1783. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes ascended from the Château de La Muette and made their way over Paris, stoking the fire with straw when needed to keep them aloft. Once beyond the walls of the city, after a flight of around twenty minutes, they let the balloon descend in a field. Only ten days later, Charles and one of the Robert brothers ascended in a gas balloon, staying aloft for two hours, after which Charles descended and let Robert out before ascending again to make some scientific observations.

Such were the beginnings in France. Within six months, mostly due to M. Charles, the balloon had been nearly perfected.

B. Faujas-de-St.-Fond. Description des experiences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier et celles auxquelles cette découverte a donné lieu. Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1783.

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Faujas, in addition to being an early supporter of the science, was its first chronicler. In November 1783, he published the first serious treatise on aerostation, documenting the experiments conducted first at Annonay and then in Paris. He gives particulars as to how the different balloons were constructed as well as tables showing various scientific observations that were made about the balloons and how they compare with what scientific theory said should happen.

This volume recounts events up to the captive flights by Pilatre de Rozier in mid-October 1783. These were not public events, but they were also impossible to conceal, and by the second day of these trials, huge crowds gathered. On the final day, the captive balloon rose high enough that all Paris could see.

At the end of the work, Faujas includes letters written to him by men who witnessed the ascents, as well as one from Etienne Montgolfier written on 20 October, the day after the last captive flight by Pilatre de Rozier.

Faujas Vol. 2 Title Page
B. Faujas-de-St.-Fond. Premiere suite de la description des experiences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier et celles auxquelles cette découverte a donné lieu. Paris: Chez Cuchet, 1784.

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This second volume, published in mid-1784, begins with an account of the first manned free flight by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes on 21 November 1783. This flight nearly failed, as a gust of wind damaged the balloon while it was still captive, but it was saved by men in the crowd who rushed forward to save it from catching fire. Some ladies who were present assisted in the repairs with their needlework. Ninety minutes later, the repairs were done, and the two men were free to make history. After describing this momentous voyage, Faujas lists all the other flights he has heard of, including those in Italy and in England. He reprints the initial report made by the Royal Academy on the hot air balloon and provides instructions for making inflammable air and elastic gum.

Faujas Dutch Title Page
Faujas-de-St.-Fond. Beschryving der Proefnemingen met konstige Lugtbollen, die in 't voorleden Jaar, meestendeels te Parys, opgelaten zyn; vervolgd met al het gene, zo tot het maaken der Aërostatische Machinen, als tot derzelver Vulling, 't zy met Vuurdamp of met Ontvlambaare Lugt, betrekking heft en de Nuttigheden, die ‘er van te verwagten zyn, wanneer zy nadir tot volmaaktheid worden gebragt. Amsterdam: Jacobus van der Burge en Zoon, 1784

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A Dutch translation of Faujas’s work, translated by Martinus Houttuyn, a medical doctor, containing many of the same plates.

Faujas Dutch Vol. 2 Title Page
Faujas-de-St.-Fond. Vervolg der Proefneemingen met Konstige Lugtbollen, Behelzende een Omstandig Berigt, van verscheide Lugtreizen met dezelven gedaan; en verder eenige Natuurkundige Waarneemingen, ten dien opzigte; also ok Nieuwe Manieren, om de Aërostatische Machinen te vullen; om de Ontvlambaare Lugt daar toe te bekomen; een Vernis te bere den omze te bestryken; dezelven te bestuuren in de Lugt en de gedagten van de Akademie der Weetenschappen van Parys, dienaangaande, in ‘t algemeen. Amsterdam, Jacobus van der Burgh en Zoon, 1784.

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The second volume of the Dutch translation.

Alien Encounter Front Cover
Carol Kent. Alien Encounter: an Historic Account. Austin: Genevieve Kent, 1999.

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On 27 August 1783, the first gas balloon constructed by M. Charles and the Robert brothers was launched from the Champ-de-Mars. After a flight of about forty-five minutes, the hydrogen in the balloon had expanded so much that it caused the balloon to burst. It fell to the earth near the village of Gonesse, about twenty kilometers north of Paris.

This miniature book tells the story of the terror of the peasants as the balloon descended, without warning, into their midst. They attacked the balloon with whatever weapons they had to hand, finally tying it to the tail of a horse, which dragged it around until the fabric was torn to shreds.

 Lettre à M. de *** Title Page
Lettre à M. de ***. Sur son projet de voyager avec la sphere aërostatique de M. de Montgolfier. Avec figure. Paris: Chez les Marchands de Feuilles Volantes, [1783].

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Describes a design for a large balloon that could carry a huge platform so that a number of people could be on board, some simply to carry out the basic functions of keeping the balloon aloft and others to perform various scientific experiments, take readings, make notes, or simply take their ease.

 Pingeron Title Page
Pingeron. L'art de faire soi-même les ballons aérostatiques: conformes á ceux de M. de Montgolfier. Amsterdam: Chez Hardouin, Libraire, [1783].

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This is a copy of a letter written to Madame la Marquise de Brantes, of Avignon, on 22 September 1783 concerning the events of 19 September, when Etienne Montgolfier repeated his balloon experiment at Versailles for the Royal family, this time with a cage hanging beneath the balloon containing a sheep, a duck, and a rooster.

 L'art de voyager Title Page
[Piroux ?]. L'art de voyager dans les airs, ou Les ballons : contenant les moyens de faire des globes aérostatiques suivant la méthode de MM. de Montgolfier, & suivant les procédés de MM. Charles & Robert : avec un précis historique des plus belles expériences qui ont été faites d'après cette célebre découverte. Paris: Chez les Librairies qu vendent les Nouveautés, 1784.

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Contains brief accounts of all the important events, ascents and discoveries of the previous year in ballooning, including letters from M. Giroud de Villette, M. Charles, and M. Robert as well as extracts from newspapers. The editors of the work state that much of what has been written on ballooning has either been for scientists (e.g., the work by Faujas) or else superficial and worthless, so they write this work for the people, in order that they can understand this new discovery.

 Aerostation - Enclyclopædia Britannica
Aerostation. Enclyclopædia Britannica. Third edition. Dublin: Printed by James Moore, 1790.

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The third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was the first to include an article on the new science of aerostation, devoting 14 pages to its history and the principles behind it, including how to construct and fill both rarefied air and inflammable air balloons.

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