After generations of trial and error, mostly error, man’s age old dream of flying was realized near the end of the eighteenth century in the form of the hot air balloon. This was followed by several decades where daring aeronauts gave play to their imaginations by constructing ever more fanciful contraptions and performing increasingly startling feats before gaping audiences.
On a November afternoon in 1783, two spirited young Frenchmen departed this planet from the Bois de Boulogne. Their twenty-five minute feat was unprecedented; it ushered in the age of space travel. Joy, gaiety and spontaneous enthusiasm reigned. Hundreds of thousands had witnessed the marvel: some wept in an agony of apprehension, while the two aeronauts yet floated in their balloon; some fell to their knees in prayer; all, as the ballon glided grandly to its landing, cheered themselves hoarse. The American envoy, Benjamin Franklin, was there. Later, someone asked him of what use was a balloon. ” Of what use,” Franklin retorted, “is a new-born baby”.
The hang-up, in the past, that stymied Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci and Swedenborg, was their stubbornness in clinging to mechanical devices with flapping wings; over the centuries this led to dozens of men, endowed with more pluck than logic, plunging to their death, martyrs to the principle of wings. Even those who deprecated the notion of flight, like the essayist Joseph Addison, protested, because they argued, the skill would entail a bird brain and, as well, the alleged promiscuity of a bird. “it would fill the world with innumerable immoralities,” Addison wrote, “The cuppola of Saint Paul’s would be covered with both sexes like the outside of a pigeon house”.
The balloon’s inventor was Joseph Montgolfier, elder son of a paper manufacturer. Both Joseph and his brother Etienne had grapled for some time with the mystery of flying. They were familiar with Joseph Priestley’s ” Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air” , and Joseph had tinkered with parachutes, successfully dropping a sheep from a tower under a rig designed like a parasol. But it was looking at an engraving showing the French and Spanish besieging the British at Gibralter that gave him the idea of storing smoke; an observation that could be made in the age of reason.
Their first test of a linen and paper balloon proved air worthy, at least for ten minutes. The physicist Charles thought that hydrogen, a recent discovery of Henry Cavendish would prove more adequate than Montgolfier’s straw and wool blend that fed their fire. Unlike the open necked Montgolfiere, the first Charliére was closed by a valve to contain the gas. Word of Charles’s strange undertaking swept over the city: when the ballon was transported by night through the streets to the Champs des mars, the people bared their heads and knelt in wonder as it went by under armed guard.
Next afternoon cannon boomed, heralding the ascension, and all Paris exulted. The ballon rose and sailed away, out of sight. Somewhere aloft, the expanding hydrogen tore a rent in the taffeta. It floated down in farm country, scaring the peasants out of their wits. They summoned the parish priest to exorcise ” the writhing demon from the clouds” with bell, book and candle; when this recipe was unavaling, they dispatched it with scythe, flail, and blunderbuss.
By now Etienne Montgolfier had arrived in Paris. Joseph was deemed a trifle uncouth for court society. He set about the construction of his “globe volant” . Aware that he was among the quality, Etienne created a magnificent blue aerostat seventy-four feet highht, girdled it with scarlet swags, and decorated it with zodiacal signs, wreaths, portraits of Apollo and royal ciphers all in gold. The handsome creation was tested in free flight by three passengers: a sheep, a cock, and a duck; suspended in a wicker basket under the balloon’s open neck. All three having weathered their trip satisfactorially, thought was now given to the concept of human flight.
There were volunteers aplenty, some of them quite clamorous, even fanatic; but word came from His August Majesty, Louis XVI, that no human life was to be imperiled by such fool nonsense except it be that of a convict. It was intolerable. Happily, it was rescinded, and the volunteers could be heeded. Of these the most importunate was the physician Francois Pilatre de Rozier who was lifted successively from 84 feet to 330 feet in four trials. All proved that the air “up there” was not poisonous.
Ten days later, the rival Professor Charles, having sling a “car” under the first bib hydrogen balloon, soared up from the Tuileries together with an assistant and sailed away to the northwest. They landed twenty-sen miles away, and promptly took off again rising to 9,000 feet.
Here then, all at once, humanity found itself with two splendid new toys. They were simplicity to make; they were reasonably safe to operate; they were a joy to behold not only for their vivid gores and gay adornments but for their round , plump shape; even more they were exhilarating to ride in. Was it any wonder that overnight an aerostatic craze was touched off. The balloon was a godsend to people with all sorts of notions: to statemen pondering power; to lover pondering elopements; to rascals scheming of great smuggling coups; to romancers, puzzling how to extricate their heroes from desperate dilemmas; to political cartoonists, blissful as they contemplated the possibilities offered by gas and hot air; but most of all to designers and craftsman.
From the ateliers of these folk poured a bewildering profusion of items. Glazed pottery from Delft, porcelain from Sevres, faience from Moustiers, mirrors and clocks, chair backs and bird cages, snuff boxes and fans. The “couturiers” and hairdressers jostled their way into the act too, with the customary outrageous results.
In all the ferment of joyous activity, only the soldiers stood glumly apart. They failed to see how the balloon would appreciably assist them in their task of killing larger numbers of people. The same consideration, but from a different angle of vision, had already occurred to Horace Walpole: “I hope, that these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and the idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science”. But to the military, the doleful fact was that the direction of a balloon could not be controlled, save up or down.
The limitation of movement was also vexing some of the aeronauts too. Of these, the most persistent was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a small, stubborn, disagreeable man who nevertheless did more than any other to popularize aerostation. In a sense he did this reluctantly, for he was committed to heavier than air flight. Between 1781 and 1783 he had designed a “vaisseau volant” on the ornithopter principle; it was almost completely hidden under a cloudbank of rudders, sails, propellors, rudders, fins, and even great winged oars. All this paraphernalia he now attached to a parachute under a balloon and gravely set about to row through the air. More important, as a professional aeronaut he attracted great crowds to one launching after another, which he conducted under a slogan taken from Vergil, “Sic Itur ad astra” – this way the road to the stars- and to which he charged a stiff admission fee.