Chapter 25: Man Takes Flight
As chemistry advanced in the 18th Century, it was applied to perhaps the all-time greatest dream of humankind: Learning how to fly. In this episode, we meet the men who made it possible as “Balloonmania” took off in France, and then across the industrializing world.
The Montgolfier brothers
Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier
The “Daredevil Aeronaut” Vincenzo Lunardi
Sources for this episode include:
Marion, Fulgence. Wonderful Balloon Ascents; or, The Conquest of the Skies: A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages. Cassel, Petter & Galpin. 1870.
Fiaschetti, Pat. “A Happy Landing for America’s First Hot-Air Balloon Flight.” New Jersey Monthly. 8 January 2018.
Kennedy Gregory P. “America’s First Flight.” Stratocat. 17 September 2005.
Slaughter, Scott. Aeronauts and Their Balloons: The Story of Aeronauts and the First Balloons. SMS. 2016.
Reminder: The Full Transcript is available with footnotes to Patreon supporters. To get footnotes, become an Industrial Revolutionary at www.Patreon.com/indrevpod today.
“After having subjected the earth to their power; after having made the waves of the sea stoop in submission under the keels of their ships; after having caught the lightning of heaven and made it subservient to the ordinary purposes of life, the genius of man undertook to conquer the regions of the air. Imagination, intoxicated with past successes, could descry no limit to human power; the gates of the infinite seemed to be swinging back before man's advancing step, and the last was believed to be the greatest of his achievements.”
That’s from Fulgence Marion’s 1870 book, Wonderful Balloon Ascents.
It’s possible that human beings have wanted the power to fly since before the homo sapien species was even born. Flight was a power that ancient peoples only ascribed to their gods and goddesses. But sometimes they would imagine the tools for flight – the Prophet Elijah flying on his chariot of Fire; Icarus flying too close to the sun with his wax wings; the magic carpet described in One Thousand and One Nights.
Over the centuries, many scientific minds tried to tackle the question of human flight. Roger Bacon sketched out an idea of a flying machine, modeled on a bird’s wings, in the 13th Century. The Augustinian monk Albert of Saxony worked on a hot air balloon theory in the 14th Century. In the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched up a design for what is basically a helicopter. And over the next 300 years, several individuals tried making wings or flying machines.
And in the 18th Century, this would become a more and more common pursuit in France, with guys like the Marquee de Bacqueville, the locksmith Besnier, and the eccentric clergyman Pierre Desforges, who came up with his ideas while serving a prison sentence for suggesting priests should be allowed to marry, and who kept trying to get unwilling peasants to be his guinea pigs in his flight experiments.
But what made the first legitimate human flights possible were advancements in chemistry. There were the 1766 experiments of British chemist Henry Cavendish, discovering hydrogen. Not long after, our old friend, Joseph Priestley, started publishing his works with pneumatics, while the Italian physicist, Tiberius Cavallo, experimented with bubbles and bags for containing hydrogen and other gasses. And within the next year, French scientists started working on the very first hot air balloons.
The hot air balloon was hardly an important invention in terms of its economic or technological impact. During the 19th Century, it was used for a variety of purposes – to spy on opposing armies, to deliver mail and parcels, and occasionally to transport tourists around. But it was much more important for its symbolic impact. Because if human beings could conquer the skies, they could conquer anything.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 25: Man Takes Flight
A quick correction of a mistake I caught from last week: I was off by a year with the date of one of General Ned Ludd’s letters, meaning the Act it held null and void was the 1788 Stocking Frames Act, not the 1812 Stocking Frames Act. Sorry about the mix up.
And a quick reminder: When I make mistakes, I do want to know about it. Not only does that go for factual stuff like the date of that letter, but also for mispronunciations. And since most of the guys we’re discussing today were French, I’ll probably butcher a name or two. You can let me know @IndRevPod, that’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
That hot air could lift a balloon off the ground was nothing new. The concept had existed for centuries in China with their paper lanterns. And the actual first hot air balloon flight may have actually been in 1736 by a Portuguese man named Don Guzman, ascending in a paper balloon.
But certainly no one was more instrumental in getting the hot air balloon concept off the ground – if you’ll excuse the phrase – than the Montgolfier brothers.
Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were born in the 1740s in the small village of Annonay in Southern France. They were the 12th and 15th, respectively, of 16 children, in a relatively successful paper manufacturing family.
The brothers did not receive a particularly advanced education, but they were fascinated by the natural sciences and mathematics. Jacques-Étienne was particularly intelligent and hard-working. He would be the one to take over the family business, eventually, and he made it quite prosperous. And when Joseph-Michel read about Cavendish’s air experiments, he got an idea: What if you could capture a cloud in a bag?
Joseph-Michel had always been captivated by clouds, and figured they must be lighter than air, since they were floating on the air.
And so, the two brothers began experimenting with different substances, to see if they could create an air lighter than the air around them. They had plenty of paper from the family business to use for the bags. But usually the gasses kept escaping through microscopic holes in the paper.
Then, one night as they sat next to a fire, they watched how the smoke seemed to be pushing the ash up into the air. And they thought, “Huh, why don’t we try smoke?”
In 1782, Joseph-Michel visited the historic city of Avignon, and there he procured a large silk bag of approximately 50 cubic feet. In November, they conducted an experiment, holding the bag over a fire until it lifted about 70 to 80 feet off the ground before the air inside cooled and it slowly fell back to the ground. And they must have thought, “Holy crap, we’re on to something!” They repeated the experiment several times, including with larger bags of varying materials, and kept getting similar results.
In June 1783, the brothers constructed a 38-foot diameter balloon out of linen bags buttoned together, suspended by cross poles. With the local nobility in attendance, they filled the balloon with smoke from a large fire. The pressure was so strong it kept eight men holding the balloon with ropes to prevent it from flying away.
Finally, they let go. It rose thousands of feet in the air and, over the next ten minutes, traveled about a mile away before coming back to the earth. The audience was astounded by, what Jacques-Étienne called, “the aerostatic machine.” And suddenly, a race to fly human beings had started in France.
Following the success of the Montgolfier brothers, another Frenchman – Jacques Alexandre César Charles – got in on the action. As a professional scientist, Charles was much better able to create hydrogen for his experiments than the Montgolfier brothers. He was also able to use the newly discovered caoutchouc, an unvolcanized natural rubber, to make the sheets to capture the hydrogen in his balloons. To fund the experiments, he tapped fellow scientist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond.
Working with Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert (usually known together as the Robert brothers) in their Paris workshop, they came up with a way to morph caoutchouc into an airtight gas bag.
At only 30 feet in diameter, this hydrogen balloon was considerably smaller than the Montgolfier brothers’ smoke balloon. In August 1783, they launched the balloon from the Champ de Mars in Paris, where countless onlookers watched it rise into the clouds. Over the next 45 minutes it flew about 13 miles to the village of Gonesse, at which point the balloon exploded and fell to the ground, terrifying the local peasants.
By the time the Montgolfier brothers arrived in Paris, seeking fame and fortune for their balloons, Charles and the Robert brothers had already changed the game. A rivalry had begun, and now both sides were racing to be the first to build a balloon that could fly human beings.
But King Louis XVI wasn’t convinced that was such a good idea. It seemed pretty dangerous to him – this was a very new scientific breakthrough, after all. As a compromise, the king suggested the first manned flight should be manned by two convicted criminals on death row. Instead, the Montgolfier brothers would experiment with animals.
In September 1783, they teamed up with a wallpaper manufacturer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon to build a giant, colorful balloon. Named the Aérostat Réveillon after their new partner, it included a 37,500 cubic foot envelope of taffeta coated with an aluminum varnish for fireproofing. The outside was painted sky blue with golden suns and the signs of the zodiac. “Manning” the flight was a rooster, a duck, and a sheep, suspended in a cage below the balloon.
Burning through about 80 pounds of straw to produce enough smoke, the Montgolfier brothers got the balloon about 1,500 feet off the ground. After about eight minutes, it descended, an estimated two miles away, in the forest. The three animals survived, although reports were mixed over whether or not they sustained any injuries (or psychological trauma) from the landing.
Watching the demonstration was a crowd at the Royal Palace in Versailles, including the king and queen, and a scientist ready to make his own leap into ballooning: Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier.
Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was born in Metz in 1756. His father was an army veteran and innkeeper. As a boy, Jean-François had shown a strong aptitude for medicine – drugs, in particular – while working in the local military hospital. At age 18 he made his way to Paris to advance in a scientific career. After teaching chemistry and physics for a while, he got a job as a sort of scientific secretary to the Comte de Provence, a younger brother of the king.
De Rozier also lectured at the French Museum in Paris. And by the end of 1781, he had opened his own museum where he conducted experiments with gasses and invented a respirator. He was a fierce rival of Alexandre Charles, and so he kept a close eye on the balloonmania going on.
After seeing the flight of the Aéronaut Réveillon, he arranged a meeting in Paris with Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, at which he proposed to be the first human to ride on a hot air balloon – a balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers. Joseph-Michel agreed, perhaps due to some unease about doing it himself, but more likely due to the financial clout de Rozier would bring to the table. As a professor, he could tap the same network of investors funding scientific research as Alexandre Charles.
The Montgolfiers and de Rozier convinced the reluctant king to let them try a manned flight. Meanwhile, they enlisted the Marquis d’Arlandes to join as the co-pilot.
The Montgolfiers already had a design in mind for a giant balloon for a manned flight – 75-feet high, 45-feet wide, highly decorated in blue and gold. Under the balloon was a wicker basket which would hold the pilots and - for the first time - a wire grate for a fire. The pilots could keep throwing fuel into the fire and the balloon could keep going.
In October they conducted tests, in which the balloon would lift the men off the ground. But the big day was November 21st, 1783, when de Rozier and d’Arlandes boarded the Globe Aérostatique (a 70-foot high, 46-foot wide balloon that could lift up to 1,700 pounds) in the gardens of the Château de la Muetta in Paris. It was a moderately cloudy day with modest winds from the northwest. Just after noon they began the fire to fill the 60,000 cubic-foot vessel with gas.
The initial take-off was not promising. Strong winds caused the balloon to bump up against something in the garden which tore the fabric in several places. Nevertheless, they were able to patch it up in a matter of hours and try again.
That’s from the John Adams miniseries on HBO, when Adams is with his wife, Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson in Paris following the end of peace talks with the British, watching the Globe Aérostatique fill with gas.
Thousands of onlookers watched the demonstration in awe and many did not believe that it would be possible for men to fly. While a majority of attendees were cautiously optimistic, others thought de Rozier and d’Arlandes were headed for certain death or injury. And the pilots did take some precautionary measures by bringing with them water and sponges, in case the vessel crashed and caught on fire.
Standing on a donut-shaped gallery below the balloon, de Rozier and d’Arlandes lifted about 250 feet off the ground. Then they were cut loose from the tethers holding them to the earth. Reaching an altitude of about 3,000 feet, they were confident enough that they removed their hats and bowed to the crowd below.
And even though Thomas Jefferson wasn’t actually in that crowd – he wasn’t even in Europe at the time – the miniseries gives him the best line in the scene.
For the next 25 minutes, de Rozier and d’Arlandes floated about 5 ½ miles, crossing the Seine, to the outskirts of the city. It was so high that two men experienced a brand-new sensation – they couldn’t make out familiar objects on the ground below them. Nevertheless, the people below saw the giant balloon floating across the sky and cheered.
After a while, d’Arlandes decided the flight had been a success and it was time to begin a descent. But de Rozier was not ready and kept adding fuel to the fire. The marquis was annoyed as de Rozier ignored him, but he was absolutely livid when de Rozier accidently started the balloon on fire. When d’Arlandes found some holes burning in the balloon fabric, he screamed at de Rozier to stop. And when he didn’t stop, d’Arlandes had to literally restrain him, then put the fire out with the water and sponges.
The descent was no picnic though. The balloon started falling way too fast while they were over the city. In the jagged streets of Paris, and with all the chimneys and steeples on the buildings, landing in the city was risky. So now d’Arlandes was frantically adding fuel back to the fire himself, to avoid a crash into a building below.
Finally, they made it outside the city, landed safely, and popped open a bottle of champagne.
The success of the Globe Aérostatique had convinced skeptics and, all of a sudden, it seemed like everyone wanted to try flying. In December, Alexandre Charles conducted his own manned flight from the Tuileries Garden with a vessel called La Charlière. This 13,000 cubic-foot, red- and yellow-striped balloon was filled not with common smoke, but with hydrogen – another first in ballooning. The flight took them a whopping 22 miles from Paris and was seen by an estimated 400,000 people.
Charles also made a subsequent solo flight in this balloon – yet another first – going about 10,000 feet into the air, where it was significantly colder and gave him a severe earache – yet another first. He would never go up in a balloon again.
Then in January 1784, the Montgolfier brothers launched an even bigger balloon down in Lyon. At about 130-feet high and nearly that wide, Le Flesselles had a capacity of over 800,000 cubic feet. Six passengers went up with it, including Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, de Rozier, Prince Charles de Laurencin, and three French nobles who paid for the experience. With the air heated by an iron stove on the hot air balloon, it went up about 3,000 feet before it overheated, tore a hole in the fabric, and had to come back down.
They tried again a few days later. Then, just as it was ready to launch, a young man from the crowd named Fontaine pushed his way up to the balloon and then jumped in the basket. His unexpected weight made the balloon rise slower than it should have and tip dangerously to one side. Only a few yards off the ground and moving violently, the balloon started moving toward the crowd, creating a stampede of people trying to get out of the way. Nevertheless, they did get up about 3,000 feet and waved their handkerchiefs to the crowd, signaling they were okay. But the added weight made the descent uncontrollable, and it crash-landed.
In March, yet another ballooner by the name of Jean-Pierre Blanchard launched his first flight with a priest. But a similar incident occurred when a young man ran up just before take-off and tried to take the place of the priest. When he was denied, the young man drew a sword and slashed a hole in the balloon.
But among those in the crowd in Lyon may have been King Gustav III of Sweden, who had been traveling through France incognito. He requested to see another hot air balloon demonstration and got one later in June, when de Rozier and the chemist Joseph Proust went up in a balloon named La Marie-Antoinette. Gustav watched alongside Louis XVI and his family as the balloon – designed with both their royal ciphers – ascended nearly 10,000 feet. Over the next 45 minutes, they broke records as they travelled 32 miles in a cold and turbulent flight to the Chantilly forest where they crash landed in a tree.
But things really kicked into high-gear when Blanchard moved to England and started ballooning there. In January 1785, he made his third-ever flight with his financier – an American doctor by the name of John Jeffries. Starting in Dover, England, they flew 21 miles south to Calais in France. It was the first time anyone had crossed the English Channel in a non-water-based vehicle.
The news of this first international flight was a blow to de Rozier, who had wanted to be the first to cross the English Channel. So he decided we was just going to have to do the more difficult flight from France to England.
This would require serious planning on his part. First, he would need a smaller, lighter balloon to get high enough to find an air current that would take him northwest. Second, to fly a balloon that small, it would need more than hot air. He decided to use a combination of Montgolfier hot air and Charles hydrogen. Charles, though, knew full well that mixing fire-heated smoke with hydrogen on a balloon was dangerous, and he harshly criticized de Rozier for it.
Nevertheless, de Rozier continued, getting financial assistance from the French government and finding a co-pilot named Pierre Romain.
For months, they constructed the balloon in Boulogne sur-Mer and prepared for the journey. As they did, de Rozier fell in love with a young English woman living there and they made plans to marry after the expedition.
But the financing of the project was never as strong as it should have been, and rather than call off the flight, they proceeded with a shabby, leaking balloon. On the morning of June 15th, 1785, de Rozier and Romaine lifted off from Boulogne and started slowly heading north.
But suddenly, the wind changed direction. They were sent back, over France, just three miles from where they started. Then they fell from as high as 3,000 feet in the air. Some onlookers said they lost gas and descended too rapidly. Others thought they heard an explosion, and that the descent had been a straight fall. People rushed to the scene of the crash. Romaine was still breathing in agony when they arrived, but would die from his extreme injuries not long after. The body of de Rozier, meanwhile, was “dreadfully mutilated.”
For how dangerous flying should have been for human beings, it is somewhat remarkable that it took as long as it did for it to lead to a casualty. And it was a major casualty too. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier had been the first human being to fly and he would be the first to die flying. The French government gave his family a pension and erected a memorial. His fiancé, meanwhile, died just eight days later, presumably of suicide.
But the first casualty of human flight would not put an end to human flight. And over the next several decades, ballooning spread across the industrializing world.
The spread of ballooning happened very fast. Even before Blanchard showed up in Great Britain, balloonists were flying there.
In November 1783, an Italian noble – Count Francesco Zambeccari – was in London where he displayed a balloon he’d been working on. Zambeccari had seen one of the unmanned Montgolfier trials earlier that year, and he wanted in on the action. At just ten feet in diameter, it was much too small to carry a human, even when filled 75% with hydrogen.
Just days after de Rozier and d’Arlandes flew on the Globe Aérostatique, Zambeccari released the balloon from Windsor, where the Royal Family watched, and it wound up 40 miles away in Petworth.
In August 1784, a Scottish pharmacist named John Tytler made the first manned flight in Great Britain. His “Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon” was 40-feet high, 30-feet wide, and shaped like a barrel. It had an onboard stove to heat the air in the balloon. It was an expensive endeavor – which didn’t help his already precarious financial situation – and he struggled to find a day in which the Scottish weather would be forgiving enough for a balloon ride.
Tytler’s first try only got him a few feet off the ground. But a couple of days later he tried again, and it got up to 350 feet and travelled about a half mile outside the city. News spread, and in October, he was set to demonstrate the balloon to a substantial crowd. But he couldn’t get enough lift, so he got out of the basket to check, and then it floated away, leaving him behind. The newspapermen attending lambasted Tytler in their articles, and even called him a coward. He left Scotland – first to northern Ireland and then to the United States – and drank himself to death ten years later in Salem, Massachusetts.
Tytler was soon overshadowed by a much more flashy character in London – another Italian noble named Vincenzo Lunardi. Self-proclaimed as the “Daredevil Aeronaut”, Lunardi served as the Secretary to Prince Caramanico, the Neapolitan Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. But he had caught balloon fever and – with and English friend, George Biggin – built a spherical balloon 33-feet in circumference, made from over 500 yards of the best oiled silk available.
Filling it with hydrogen gas, Lunardi and Biggin launched their balloon from the Artillery Grounds in London to a crowd of 200,000 skeptics, including the Prince of Wales. Getting lift-off was tricky, so Biggin got out of the car of the balloon and it took off with just Lunardi and a few small animals – a dog, a cat, and a pigeon.
The balloon included a pair of oars in the shape of wings, which Lunardi hoped would allow him to steer the aircraft. But one of the oars broke and fell out to the ground. About 90 minutes later Lunardi landed up in Herefordshire and decided to go again. Since he couldn’t really refuel, he simply took weight off – including the cold, airsick cat – and went back up.
This time, he ascended so high and fast that the balloon was in freezing temperatures. Over the next 80 minutes he travelled another 14 miles northeast. When he landed, he had trouble convincing the local farm workers to help him, who were not happy about the gassy smell of this balloon.
Lunardi was so celebrated for these flights that several articles of clothing were subsequently named after him – the Lunardi skirt, the Lunardi Bonnet, the Lunardi bow.
In 1793, Balloonmania finally made it across the pond, when Jean-Pierre Blanchard made a 45-minute flight from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey, 15 miles away. Tens of thousands of spectators – including President George Washington and future Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe – watched as he climbed nearly 6,000 feet into the air over the Delaware River. He drank wine as he descended into New Jersey, where he was greeted by two very confused residents. Blanchard, who spoke no English, then held up one of the unopened bottles of wine to show he was a friend. Then they all had a little party together drinking the “very excellent” wine as they packed up the balloon.
But the death of de Rozier and a few other close calls convinced the aeronauts that some precautions were needed. In 1785, Blanchard introduced a new parachute for balloon pilots as a last resort. The idea had been around for a while to help people escape burning buildings. But in 1797, another Frenchman by the name of André-Jacques Garnerin did the next big thing when he parachuted down from a balloon not as a safety measure, but as a daredevil stunt.
The first truly long-distance flight wouldn’t come until 1836, when the Great Balloon of Nassau carried its maker, Charles Green, with a musician and a member of Parliament about 500 miles from London to Weilburg in Germany in 18 hours.
And so, human beings had departed the 18th Century and entered the 19th Century, with the ability to fly. When they conquered the skies they put the ancient and Medieval past behind. A new world was upon them. And as they transitioned into modernity they would begin to put an end to a practice that had existed for thousands of years across the Eurasian landmass and now the world: Slavery – next week on the Industrial Revolutions.
If you know nothing else about 19th Century ballooning, you probably know about the Jules Verne story “Around the World in 80 Days.” Well, it was the inspiration for one of my favorite podcasts, the 80 Days Podcast, in which three history and geography nerds, with the help of their internet-powered balloon, discuss little-known countries and territories. So, if you’ve ever wanted to learn about the Isle of Man, or Gambia, or Lichtenstein, or Brunei, this is a great podcast to check out. Again, that’s the 80 Days Podcast, and you can find it at 80DaysPodcast.com.