On This Day: First Hot Air Balloon

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up on comic books.  And out of all the powers the various super-heroes in those books had, the one I wanted more than anything has been the power of flight.

Human flight has been a dream of mankind since its earliest history.  We have the story of Daedalus and Icarus from Classical Mythology of Wayland/Völund the smith from Norse.  Pictures of winged humans have been found in cave paintings dating back thousands of years.

There are accounts of people attempting to don wings and fly dating back to about 850 BC. (Hart, Clive. “The Prehistory of Flight.” University of California Press. September 1985.) None of these, so far as we know, were ever successful, at least so far as we know.  It is, perhaps, not impossible that some early Lilienthal managed a set of fixed, glider wings that carried him through the air for a while but who has been lost to history (perhaps after suffering Lilienthal’s fate).

Leonardo Da Vinci drew several concepts for flying machines.  In retrospect, none were at all functional.

And so, the dream of leaving the surface of the Earth and travelling in the skies remained just a dream until…

One of the two Montgolfier brothers was watching laundry drying by a fire.  Pockets of the damp cloth would occasionally billow upwards.  He made later experiments trapping the smoke from a fire which he thought contained something which he called “Mongolfier gas” which he believed possessed a property he named “levity” causing it to rise.  He built a box-like chamber of thin wood covered on the sides and top with taffeta cloth.  Underneath, he lit some crumpled paper.  The box quickly rose and collided with the ceiling.

Joseph recruited his brother into the balloon making endeavor and began making larger balloons with more carrying capacity.  Indeed, one of their experiments had sufficient lift so that they lost control of it and it came down two kilometers away where it was, unfortunately, destroyed “by the indiscretion of a passerby.”

Eventually, the brothers were ready for their first public demonstration.  For this demonstration they constructed a globular balloon of sackcloth lined with three thin layers of paper.  Fishnet over the outside reinforced it.

They took their balloon to Annonay, in Southern France and, on June 4, 1783, in front of a group of dignitaries filled the balloon with “Mongolfier gas” (smokey hot air to us) and let it rise in front of a group of French dignitaries.  Like their earlier, lost balloon, this one traveled about 2 km in a flight lasting about 10 minutes.  It rose an estimated 1.6 to 2 km into the air.

The dream of flight had taken its first real step.

A few months later, on September 19 1783, a balloon first carried living cargo, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster.  And, still later, probably on October 15, a much larger balloon carried the first human passenger, Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier on a short, tethered flight.

Other flights, including the first free flight (on November 21 carrying Pilâtre de Rozier, and the marquis d’Arlandes) quickly followed.

Humanity had taken its first steps beyond the surface of the Earth.  It would be more than a century before Otto Lilienthal became the first known person to successfully pilot a heavier than air flying vehicle and another decade after that before the first heavier than air powered flight.  But the first steps had been taken.

High Flight
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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