This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

A Lot of Hot Air

Montgolfier balloon

October 15, 1783: First Human to Lift Off Earth

On this day the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon marks the first human ascent from the earth with Joseph-Michel Montgolfier on board.

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The brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier developed a hot air balloon in Annonay, Ardeche, France, and demonstrated it publicly on September 19, 1783 with an unmanned flight lasting 10 minutes. After experimenting with unmanned balloons and flights with animals, the first balloon flight with a human aboard was performed on or around October 15, 1783. Etienne Montgolfier made at least one tethered flight from the yard of the Reveillon workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

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Rest of the story . . .

Of the two brothers, it was Joseph who first contemplated building machines as early as 1777 when he observed laundry drying over a fire incidentally formed pockets that billowed upwards. Joseph made his first definitive experiments in November 1782 while living in the city of Avignon. Joseph mused on the possibility of men being lifted by the same force that was lifting the embers from the fire. He believed that contained within the smoke, was a special gas, which he called Montgolfier Gas, with a special property he called levity.

As a result of these musings, Joseph set about building a box-like chamber 1×1×1.3 m (3 ft by 3 ft (0.91 m) by 4 ft) out of very thin wood, and covering the sides and top with lightweight taffeta cloth. He crumpled and lit some paper under the bottom of the box. The contraption quickly lifted off its stand and collided with the ceiling.

The two brothers set about building a similar device, scaled up by three (so 27 times greater in volume). The lifting force was so great that they lost control of their craft on its very first test flight on 14 December 1782. The device floated nearly two kilometers (about 1.2 mi). It was destroyed after landing by the “indiscretion” of passersby.

Early_flight_02562u_(2)The brothers decided to make a public demonstration of a balloon in order to establish their claim to its invention. They constructed a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth with three thin layers of paper inside. The envelope could contain nearly 790 m³ (28,000 cubic feet) of air and weighed 225 kg (500 lb). It was constructed of four pieces (the dome and three lateral bands) and held together by 1,800 buttons. A reinforcing fish net of cord covered the outside of the envelope.

On 4 June 1783, they flew this craft as their first public demonstration at Annonay in front of a group of dignitaries from the États particuliers. Its flight covered 2km (1.2mi), lasted 10 minutes, and had an estimated altitude of 1,600-2,000 m (5,200-6,600 ft). Word of their success quickly reached Paris. Étienne went to the capital to make further demonstrations and to solidify the brothers’ claim to the invention of flight.

On 19 September 1783, the Aérostat Réveillon was flown with the first living beings in a basket attached to the balloon: a sheep called Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”), a duck and a rooster. The sheep was believed to have a reasonable approximation of human physiology. The duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted aloft. It was included as a control for effects created by the aircraft rather than the altitude. The rooster was included as a further control as it was a bird that did not fly at high altitudes. This demonstration was performed before a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles (3 km), and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet (460 m). The craft landed safely after flying.

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It is fitting that Étienne Montgolfier was the first human to lift off the earth, making at least one tethered flight from the yard of the Réveillon workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine most likely on October 15, 1783.

The balloon was about seventy-five feet tall and about fifty feet in diameter. It had rich decorative touches supplied by Réveillon. The color scheme was gold figures on a deep blue background. Fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns with Louis XVI’s face in the center interlaced with the royal monogram in the central section graced the majestic machine. Red and blue drapery and golden eagles were at the base of the balloon.

The early flights made a sensation. Numerous engravings commemorated the events. Chairs were designed with balloon backs, and mantel clocks were produced in enamel and gilt-bronze replicas set with a dial in the balloon. One could buy crockery decorated with naive pictures of balloons.

faience0025s image clock Chairs

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