The Montgolfier and Charles Balloons

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

    We now come to the invention of the balloon, which was due to Joseph Michel Montgolfier (1740-1810) and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier (1745-1799), sons of Pierre Montgolfier, a large and celebrated papermaker at Annonay, a town about 40 m. from Lyons. The brothers had observed the suspension of clouds in the atmosphere, and it occurred to them that if they could enclose any vapour of the nature of a cloud in a large and very light bag, it might rise and carry the bag with it into the air. Towards the end of 1782 they inflated bags with smoke from a fire placed underneath, and found that either the smoke or some vapour emitted from the fire did ascend and carry the bag with it. Being thus assured of the correctness of their views, they determined to have a public ascent of a balloon on a large scale. They accordingly invited the States of Vivarais, then assembled at Annonay, to witness their aerostatic experiment; and on the 5th of June 1783, in the presence of a considerable concourse of spectators, a linen globe of 105 ft. in circumference was inflated over a fire fed with small bundles of chopped straw. When released it rapidly rose to a great height, and descended, at the expiration of ten minutes, at the distance of about 1 1/2m. This was the discovery of the balloon. The brothers Montgolfier imagined that the bag rose because of the levity of the smoke or other vapour given forth by the burning straw; and it was not till some time later that it was recognized that the ascending power was due merely to the lightness of heated air compared to an equal volume of air at a lower temperature. In this balloon, no source of heat was taken up, so that the air inside rapidly cooled, and the balloon soon descended.

Charles' and Robert's Balloon - EB 1911
Charles' and Robert's Balloon
27 Aug 1783
    The news of the experiment at Annonay attracted so much attention at Paris that Barthelemi Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), afterwards professor of geology at the Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, set on foot a subscription for paying the expense of repeating the experiment. The balloon was constructed by two brothers of the name of Robert, under the superintendence of the physicist, J. A. C. Charles. The first suggestion was to copy the process of Montgolfier, but Charles proposed the application of hydrogen gas, which was adopted. The filling of the balloon, which was made of thin silk varnished with a solution of elastic gum, and was about 13 ft. in diameter, was begun on the 23rd of August 1783, in the Place des Victoires. The hydrogen gas was obtained by the action of dilute sulphuric acid upon iron filings, and was introduced through leaden pipes; but as the gas was not passed through cold water, great difficulty, was experienced in filling the balloon completely; and altogether about 300 lb. of sulphuric acid and twice that amount of iron filings were used. Bulletins were issued daily of the progress of the inflation; and the crowd was so great that on the 26th the balloon was moved secretly by night to the Champ de Mars, a distance of 2 m. On the next day an immense concourse of people covered the Champ de Mars, and every spot from which a view could be obtained was crowded. About five o'clock a cannon was discharged as the signal for the ascent, and the balloon when liberated rose to the height of about 3000 ft. with great rapidity. A shower of rain which began to fall directly after it had left the earth in no way checked its progress; and the excitement was so great, that thousands of well-dressed spectators, many of them ladies, stood exposed, watching it intently the whole time it was in sight and were drenched to the skin, The balloon, after remaining in the air for about three-quarters of an hour, fell in a field near Gonesse, about 15 m. off, and terrified the peasantry so much that it was torn into shreds by them. Hydrogen gas was at this time known by the name of inflammable air; and balloons inflated with gas have ever since been called by the people air-balloons, the kind invented by the Montgolfiers being designated fire-balloons. French Writers have also very frequently styled them after their inventors, Charliéres and Montgolfiéres

Montgolfier's Balloon
Montgolfier's Balloon
19 Sep 1783
    On the 19th of September 1783 Joseph Montgolfier repeated the Annonay experiment at Versailles, in the presence of the king, the queen, the court and an immense number of spectators. The inflation was begun at one o'clock, and completed in eleven minutes, when the balloon rose to the height of about 1500 ft., and descended after eight minutes, at a distance of about 2 m., in the wood of Vaucresson. Suspended below the balloon: in a cage, had been placed a sheep, a cock and a duck, which were thus the first aerial travellers. They were quite uninjured, except the cock, which had its right wing hurt in consequence of a kick it had received from the sheep; but this took place before the ascent. The balloon, which was painted with ornaments in oil colours, had a very showy appearance.

    Francois Pilatre de Rozier (1756-1785), a native of Metz, who was appointed superintendent of the natural history collections of Louis XVIII. On the 15th of October 1783, and following days, he made several ascents (generally alone, but once with a companion, Girond de Villette) in a captive balloon (i.e. one attached by ropes to the ground), and demonstrated that there was no difficulty in taking up fuel and feeding the fire, which was kindled in a brazier suspended under the balloon, when in the air. The way being thus prepared for aerial navigation, on the 21st of November 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d'Arlandes first trusted themselves to a free fire-balloon. The experiment was made from the Jardin du Chateau de la Muette, in the Bois de Boulogne. A large fire-balloon was inflated at about two o'clock, rose to a height of about 500 ft., and passing over the Invalides and the Ecole Mililaire, descended beyond the Boulevards, about 9000 yds. from the place of ascent, having been between twenty and twenty-five minutes in the air. Only ten days later, viz. on the 1st of December 1783, Charles ascended from Paris in a balloon inflated with hydrogen gas. The balloon, as in the case of the small one of the same kind previously launched from the Champ de Mars, was constructed by the brothers Robert, one of whom took part in the ascent. It was 27 ft. in diameter, and the car was suspended from a hoop surrounding the middle of the balloon, and fastened to a net, which covered the upper hemisphere. The balloon ascended very gently from the Tuileries at a quarter to two o'clock, and after remaining for some time at an elevation of about 2000 ft., it descended in about two hours at Nesle, a small town about 27 m. from Paris, when Robert left the car, and Charles made a second ascent by himself. He had intended to have replaced the weight of his companion by a nearly equivalent quantity of ballast; but not having any suitable means of obtaining such at the place of descent, and it being just upon sunset, he gave the word to let go, and the balloon being thus so greatly lightened, ascended very rapidly to a height of about 2 m. After staying in the air about half an hour, he descended 3 m. from the place of ascent, although he believed the distance traversed, owing to different currents, to have been about 9 m. In this second journey he experienced a violent pain in his right ear and jaw, no doubt produced by the rapidity of the ascent. He also witnessed the phenomenon of a double sunset on the same day; for when he ascended, the sun had set in the valleys, and as he mounted he saw it rise again, and set a second time as he descended.

    All the features of the modern balloon as now used are more or less due to Charles, who invented the valve at the top, suspended the car from a hoop, which was itself attached to the balloon by netting, &c. With regard to his use of hydrogen gas, there are anticipations that must be noticed. As early as 1766 Henry Cavendish showed that this gas was at least seven times lighter than ordinary air, and it immediately occurred to Dr Joseph Black, of Edinburgh, that a thin bag filled with hydrogen gas would rise to the ceiling of a room. He provided, accordingly, the allantois of a calf, with the view of showing at a public lecture such a curious experiment; but for some reason it seems to have failed, and Black did not repeat it, thus allowing a great discovery, almost within his reach, to escape him. Several years afterwards a similar idea occurred to Tiberius Cavallo, who found that bladders, even when carefully scraped, are too heavy, and that China paper is permeable to the gas. But in 1782, the year before the invention of the Montgolfiers, he succeeded in elevating soap-bubbles by inflating them with hydrogen gas. Researches on the use of gas for inflating balloons seem to have been carried on at Philadelphia nearly simultaneously with the experiments of the Montgolfiers; and when the news of the latter reached America, D. Rittenhouse and F. Hopkinson, members of the Philosophical Society at Philadelphia; constructed a machine consisting of forty-seven small hydrogen gas-balloons attached to a car or cage. After several preliminary experiments, in which animals were let up to a certain height by a rope, a carpenter, one James Wilcox, was induced to enter the car for a small sum of money; the ropes were cut, and he remained in the air about ten minutes, and only then effected his descent by making incisions in a number of the balloons, through fear of falling into the river, which he was approaching.

Excerpt from "Aeronautics," 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica (source)

See also: