Indiana University Bloomington

Conquest of the Skies: A History of Ballooning

Scientific Treatises

In France, ballooning was the province of the scientists. From the very beginning, the most prestigious scientific society in the nation, the Académie Royale des Sciences, was involved. As often happened when there was a scientific discovery or controversy, the Academy appointed a commission to study and evaluate this new aerostatic machine. The commission, whose members were Antoine Lavoisier, Nicolas Desmarest, Charles Le Roy, Charles Bossut, and Gaspard Monge, was created only weeks after hearing of the Annonay flight, and they immediately determined to repeat the experiment in Paris. They placed Etienne Montgolfier, who was in Paris by this time, in charge. Such commissions often assisted in funding and promoting new sciences, and they decided to underwrite the expenses for the construction of the new balloon.

In fact, not only did the scientific academy support aerostation—they claimed it for their own. Largely this was due to safety concerns. Many flights ended in failure, and the enormous crowds, disappointed in their excitement, often became hostile and destroyed the failed balloon, often injuring the would-be aeronauts. Hot-air balloons were also seen as a fire hazard and were outlawed in Lyon. In Paris, experiments by the public were discouraged and eventually officially forbidden unless one had permission from the authorities.

Once the original purpose of the commission was satisfied, and aerostation deemed a worthwhile science, Lavoisier suggested that a new commission be created for the research and development of technical improvements to the machine. There were four main issues: to create an impermeable fabric for constructing the balloon; to discover a light gas that is both easy to obtain and inexpensive; to find a means of ascending and descending at will; and to find a method of directing the balloon.

Ultimately, it was this fourth issue—that of steering the balloon—that was the major problem, the one that no one was able to resolve. Various theoretical solutions involved oars, sails, or other wing-like devices attached to the balloon’s basket, but none of them answered.

Although the practice of aerostation did not have the strong official backing in England that it did in France, still there were some few scientists in that country who undertook some experiments and wrote about their findings.

18th Century

Jean-Louis Carra. Essai sur la Nautique aérienne, contenant l’art de diriger les Ballons aérostatiques à volonté, & d’accélérer leur course dans les plaines de l’air; avec le précis de deux experiences particulièrs de Météorologie à faire. Lu à l'Académie royale des sciences de Paris, le 14 janvier 1784. Paris: Chez Eugène Onfroy, Libraire, 1784.

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Jean-Louis Carra was a natural philosopher, librarian, and radical journalist. Before he became interested in balloons, he was doing experiments with electricity and had just finished his Nouveaux principes de physique.

This work, a treatise on how a balloon may be steered, was read to the Royal Academy of Sciences on 14 January 1784. In this printed version the author includes a plate with a design for a device that could draw electricity from the air for the guidance of the balloon.

Francis Olivari. The Balloons of Citizen Campenas, or Aerial Castles Realized. An Essay on Submarine Navigation. The Rafts of Citizen Monge. Contre-Rafts, or Bomb-Floats. Dublin: George Bonham, 1798.

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In 1797, a French engineer by the name of Campenas wrote a letter to Napoleon in which he set out the possibility of invading England by means of balloons capable of carrying over two hundred persons. He writes, “You can thus, without any danger, hover above the fleets of enemies jealous of our happiness, and thunder against them like a new Jupiter…” Campenas also caused the letter to be printed, as it was in the new newspaper The Press of Dublin on 3 October of that year. Many responded with incredulity, thinking the notion absurd.

Olivari, on the other hand, denounces the arguments of that “set of men whose stupid ignorance and stubborn incredulity is beyond every description” and asserts, rather, that Campenas’s proposed project would “be neither very difficult nor very expensive.” He explains the theories that make it possibles well as the weight and cost of the project if it were undertaken.

Second in the volume is a foresighted essay on the creation of a submarine vessel.

The two final essays of the work deal with rumors that the French are constructing a huge raft at Brest capable of carrying 10,000 men. Olivari argues against the possibility of such a thing but then proposes the construction of smaller, bomb-proof rafts that, aided by a large balloon dropping bombs from above, would be capable of easily defending against a raft invasion by the French.

19th Century

Felix Henin. Mémoire sur la direction des aérostats, lu, le 20 Thermidor an 10, à la Société Académique des Sciences de Paris, séante au Louvre. Paris: Chez Moreau, Libraire, [1802].

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Like many scientists who were concerned with how to steer a balloon, Henin looks to the physiology of birds and fish for answers. In this essay, Henin proposes the use of an upside-down parachute along with sails to control the balloon.

Meller Title Page
Prosper Meller Jeune. Phare aérostatique. Paris: Typographie Plon Frères, 1854.

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Meller argues that since no one can seem to overcome the obstacles that prevent ballooning from moving forward in utility, why not use it for what it can do? In previous works, Meller outlined ways balloons might be used to create a sort of aerostatic railway to traverse mountains, rivers, and other dangerous paths. Another work described how the military might make use of balloons in warfare.

This work details several ways that the science of air navigation can be useful to the Navy. He proposes using captive balloons rather like lighthouses, to mark where shoals, reefs, or other dangerous coastal areas lie. He also outlines the possibility of creating the unsinkable ship. If a ship were carrying metal canisters of hydrogen, then even during heavy storms or battle the ship would not sink.

Meller also proposes that sailors record the prevailing winds in the upper atmosphere (rather than simply the surface wind, as they usually do) using small balloons, so as to contribute to aeronautic science the usual speeds and currents of the prevailing upper winds over the seas.

Farcot Title Page
E. Farcot. La navigation atmosphérique. Paris: Librairie Nouvelle, 1859.

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Farcot, a mechanical engineer and member of the Société Aérostatique et Météorologique de France, here gives his proposal for an airship designed both for pleasure and for scientific research. After giving an analysis of the state of balloon technology, he then describes his ideas for an airship, the “Explorateur aerien.” At 90 meters long and 35 meters high, it would have 15 tons carrying capacity and would be fitted with a 5 horsepower engine. It looks rather like a great fish, including tail fins at the rear.

 Moreaud Title Page
Pierre Moreaud. Chemins Aériens. Application De La Vapeur À La Direction Des Aérostats Captifs. Paris: Librairie de Malet-Bachelier, 1861.

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The work begins with a recap of the history of ballooning up to his time, including regret at the fact that little new has been discovered since the time of the first aeronauts, especially concerning the ability to navigate a balloon. Moreaud points out, however, that no one has done any work on how to navigate a captive balloon. In this work he proposes the use of two of the latest scientific developments of the time--steam and the electric telegraph—along with captive balloons to develop a new system of public transportation.

 Seguin Title Page
Jules Seguin. Chemins aériens; Projet d'établissement d'un système de locomotion aérienne au moyen de ballons captifs remorqués par la vapeur entre la place de la Concorde et la porte de la Muette (3,600 mètres environ). Paris: Malet-Bachelier, Libraire, 1863.

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Building on the work of Moreaud, Seguin offers a plan for attaching a captive balloon to a cable so that it can be towed between the Place de la Concorde and la Muette.

Before providing the practical application of the work, Seguin offers the theoretical principles behind it, using, as so many before him, a discussion of the flight of birds and the swimming of fish. Seguin then lays out all the details for his plan—the necessary equipment and construction along with an estimated cost, which he put at 600,000 francs.

James Glaisher. Voyages aeriens. Paris: Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1870.

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As a meteorologist and a founder of the British Meteorological Society, James Glaisher was instrumental in the creation of scientific meteorology in Britain. After the creation of the balloon committee in 1861, Glaisher began his many balloon ascensions specifically to make meteorological observations at high altitudes. In 1866, Glaisher helped found the Aeronautical Society and was an advocate of ballooning for scientific research for the rest of his life.

Glaisher’s most famous ascent was on 5 September 1862, when he and Henry Coxwell ascended to around 37,000 feet and nearly died. Glaisher fell unconscious while Coxwell lost the use of his limbs for a time. Only by undoing a cord with his teeth did Coxwell release enough gas that the two descended to safety.

In addition to the account by Glaisher of his own aerial voyages, the work contains essays by contemporary French aeronauts Camille Flammarion, W. de Fonvielle, and Gaston Tissandier

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