The History of the Hot Air Balloon:
The Montgolfier Brothers
Before I began writing this paper, I never really thought about how many people contributed to the discovery of aircraft. How the ideas came into their heads no one will know, but we do know that they persevered in their work, because their ideas were successful! In this essay I will share the story of the Montgolfier Brothers, who were the inventors of the first practical hot air balloon. I will explain how Joseph Montgolfier discovered “Montgolfier gas”, what they made the balloons with, and the supporters of their discovery. The brothers did many demonstrations in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people. It took a while for others to realize that human flight was not heresy, but that it was a milestone in the industrial revolution.
It all started when Joseph Montgolfier, the eldest brother, was sitting by the fireplace on a crisp morning in 1782. Joseph wondered what caused the smoke and sparks to rise from the fire. The brothers began conducting experiments to understand this better. Together they took a small paper bag and placed a flame under the bottom of the bag, causing it to rise. The brothers thought that the burning from the fire created a gas which caused the bag to rise. They called this gas “Montgolfier Gas”. Both jumped and screamed for joy! It was not until 1785 that they discovered that there was no gas, rather the bag was being lifted by the hot air produced from the fire. This was possible because the heated air going up into the bag was lighter than the surrounding air.
Later on in the year 1782 Joseph, and his brother Jacques, began to make their first prototype of a balloon. The three main parts of the balloon were the envelope, The burner, and the basket. The envelope was designed to hold the air inside the balloon.The burner was designed to propel the heat up into the envelope. The basket was designed for the passengers and the pilot. When the brothers designed this they forgot one very important thing which you will read about in the next paragraph, but for now just know that it was important. Now, there are some really important parts of the envelope that I want to discuss with you. First there is a parachute valve. This is a self sealing flap that allows hot air to escape at a controlled rate, slowing the ascent or causing a descent. There are also gores and panels, which are the rivets in the balloon material. These let the outside air slip through smoothly with out causing a rough flight.
In June of 1783, Joseph and Jacques made there appearance in Versailles. They conducted a royal demonstration of the hot air balloon in front of King Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Not only were the King and Queen watching, but also thousands of people in the courtyard had come to see this marvelous thing fly. The brothers put three passengers into the basket: a duck, a rooster, and a sheep. The brothers were testing how animals reacted to the effect of altitude. Can you just imagine what they were saying? It probably went some thing like this:
Sheep: I can’t believe this!
Duck: Yeah, it’s animal abuse to test things out on us first.
Rooster: They are just afraid of dyeing up there, so if we die, then they know that they will die.
Sheep: Now I know how a guinea pig feels....
Everyone held their breath as the brothers lit the fire underneath the envelope and the balloon slowly lifted from the ground. The crowd went silent. They asked, “How is this possible?” The balloon floated for eight minutes and landed two miles from where it had started! This was a huge accomplishment. The King told Joseph and Jacques, “Splendid show, boys. The only thing I did not agree with, or more like my nose did not agree with, was the constant production of smoke from your contraption.” The brothers were very happy with this answer, they were glad that the people loved their invention that they had worked so hard on everyday. The brothers made many more demonstrations, and every time left the crowd saying, “WOW!” Within the next year humans were beginning to fly in the balloons, and they realized one thing. There was no way to propel and steer the balloon. Later on someone else invented that, but the balloon that Joseph and Jacques made got them started.
How much of that story did you know? It is amazing how much these brothers did within a span of two to three years! Yeah, the ideas that came into their heads were a little hard to take as a reality in the 1700’s, but their ideas were successful! Now you know that the “Montgolfier Gas” that Joseph discovered wasn’t even gas, what the balloons they invented were made of, and all the people that said they were crazy now believed that man could fly. Heresy was no longer a word in their vocabulary, because hope took its place. You can’t argue that this was a milestone in the industrial revolution.