Indiana University Bloomington

Conquest of the Skies: A History of Ballooning
Charles at Tuileries

Introduction

Of all the scientific discoveries and intellectual advances of the eighteenth century, there were none that so excited the enthusiasm of the people, both educated and uneducated, as the balloon.

It was not that no one had ever conceived of a balloon before. In Europe, the idea had been around since the fifteenth century, and in China, the idea of buoyant flight was known much earlier. There are also accounts of Bartolomeu Laurenco de Gusmao, a Brazilian who moved to Portugal, who was launching small balloons for the amusement of courtiers and diplomats as early as 1709 as well as a report of a Russian, Kria Kutnoi, who launched a balloon in 1731.

It was not until 4 June 1783, however, that history generally recognizes the first public balloon flight. Near Annonay, in southern France, the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, sons of a wealthy paper manufacturer, constructed their “aerostatic machine” of linen lined with paper and filled it with rarefied air, which they generated by burning bundles of straw along with some wool.

This first unmanned flight quickly led to similar experiments. By the end of the year, two manned flights had taken place in Paris, and hopeful new aeronauts throughout France were preparing to make their own ascents. It wasn’t long before the craze had spread to the rest of Europe and even to America.

This exhibition presents many of the scientific and historical works on ballooning written during the century following the Montgolfiers’ flight in 1783 as well as children’s books featuring balloons.


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