Sunday, April 29, 2007


From the prologue to THE BALLOONIST, a novel by Stephen Poleskie

A Brief History of Ballooning, or How War Was Taken to the Air

IT COULD BE ARGUED THAT the balloon was the most significant of mankind’s achievements. For the first time ever, a human being was able to leave the surface of the Earth and travel in the skies.

The French brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier had long been considered the originators of the hot-air balloon. However, recent research has revealed that on August 8, 1709, almost three-quarters of a century before the Montgolfiers, a Brazilian priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated a model hot-air balloon at the court of John V of Portugal. An artist of the time, Bernardino de Sousa Pereira, recorded the event in a painting now in the museum of the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to one Salvadoro Ferreira, who witnessed the feat, the small balloon was constructed of thick paper and inflated by hot air,the fire being contained in an clay bowl suspended below the neck of the envelope. Other reliable witnesses included: Queen Maria Anna, the Papal Nuncio, and Cardinal Conti, who later became Pope Innocent III. It was reported that the balloon reached a height of twelve feet before two panicked valets, fearing it would set the royal drapes on fire, used their staffs to batter the strange flying thing to the ground.      

On April 25, 1783, the brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier, paper makers by trade, successfully flew their first balloon at Annonay near Lyons in France. Propelled by hot air from a wood and straw fire, the balloon was reported to have risen to a height of about 1000 feet and traveled horizontally 3000 feet before the hot air cooled and it fell to earth. They had begun their experiments years earlier with tiny paper bags and the smoke from their fireplace.

Two months later, the brothers gave another public demonstration at Annonay with an improved balloon that rose to a height of 6000 feet. This ascension was witnessed by a visiting American diplomat greatly interested in scientific discovery, Benjamin Franklin, who described the event in his journal. The success of this balloon resulted in a summons from the king himself, Louis XVI, who wished to see the new invention.

For their command performance the Montgolfiers constructed an even larger balloon, and hung a basket underneath it. In the basket would be the world’s first aerial voyagers: a cock, a duck, and a sheep.

This balloon was launched at Versailles on September 19, 1783 before the astonished gaze of King Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their court. The brightly decorated craft climbed to approximately 1800 feet, and, carried by the winds, flew two miles before coming down. When the balloon was found the cock was discovered to be somewhat the worse for his adventure. Learned minds of the time speculated that the cock, while admittedly a bird, but not used to flights higher than three feet, had been weakened by the great altitude to which the balloon had ascended. However, further investigation suggested that it was more likely that the poor fowl had been trampled on by the overly excited sheep. The avid Ben Franklin was also present at this demonstration.

King Louis was so impressed with the flight that he awarded the brothers the Order of Saint Michel. From that time on all hot-air balloons would bear the title montgolfieres.

Having demonstrated that it was safe for animals to venture into the skies, the Montgolfier brothers concluded that human beings should be next. The brothers constructed another, larger, balloon specifically for this purpose. This magnificent new balloon was over 49 feet in diameter, and superbly decorated in a blue and gold color scheme, emblazoned with the royal cipher, signs of the zodiac, eagles, and smiling suns. Below its neck was a wicker gondola capable of holding two men, and the fire necessary to keep the the envelope inflated.

Louis XVI, worrying over the experiments success, proffered that a couple of prisoners, who had been sentenced to death, might volunteer to fly in the montgolfier  if they were offered a chance of freedom. However, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, a man who had been a very active supporter of this project from the start, protested that the honor of being the first person to fly should not be given to a criminal.

Pilatre de Rozier won his argument and, on October 15,1783, made a tethered flight to a height of 85 feet. By carefully tending the straw fire in the gondola, the prototype aeronaut was able to remain airborne for a full four and one-half minutes.

Such was the progress of technology in those days that a mere seven months after their first successful attempt at launching a balloon, the Montgolfiers were preparing to put two men into the skies for an untethered flight.

 Having proven himself as an aviator, Monsieur de Rozier was now ready to take up a passenger. On November 21,1783, de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first men to be carried in free flight by a balloon. They made their ascent, before cheering crowds, from the garden of the Chateau La Muette in the Bois Boulogne, Paris. A southerly wind carried them five miles in 25 minutes, before the first aerial voyage in history ended in a farmer’s field. A dream of 5000 years had been realized; man had safely flown through the skies.

Unfortunately, two years later, on July 15,1785, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, the first man to fly, would also become the first man killed in a flying accident when a balloon he was using in an attempt to cross the English Channel, inflated with hot air and hydrogen, caught on fire and crashed in flames.   

Despite their achievements the Montgolfier brothers, with their hot-air balloons, were beginning to feel competition from the phlogiston-filled balloons of Professor Jacques A. C. Charles. The lighter-than-air gas phlogiston would later be renamed hydrogen by the French chemist Lavoisier.

On August 27,1783, Professor Charles successfully launched a small, unmanned phlogiston-filled balloon from the Champs-de-Mars in Paris. This balloon was airborne for about 45 minutes before coming to earth at Gonesse some 15 miles away, where it was attacked by panic-stricken villagers wielding pitch forks who, believing it to be some strange device of the devil, were not satisfied until the balloon’s rubberized silk skin had been reduced to shreds.

Benjamin Franklin, by then a rabid follower of the balloon experiments being conducted in France, had viewed Professor Charles’s launch. Franklin was dismayed to heard many of those in the crowd around him dismiss the balloon as being of no practical value. Even members of the French military present at the ascent, with whom Franklin discussed the balloon’s flight, failed to recognize the potential of lighter-than-air craft as an instrument of war. One officer remarked on the balloon’s qualities as an entertaining toy and laughingly asked, "Of what use is it?" Franklin, always quick to grasp the significanceof any new invention, made his now-famous reply: "Sir, of what use is a new born baby?"  

Following his great success with his model, Professor Charles designed and built a man-carrying balloon. On December 1,1783, the professor and one of the two brothers who had assisted him in constructing the skin, Marie-Noel Robert, became the first men to fly in a hydrogen-filled balloon, ascending from theTuileries Gardens in Paris before a crowd estimated to number 400,000.

On September 15, 1784, Vincent Lunardi, secretary to the Neopolitian Ambassador, rose from the grounds of the Honorable Artillery Company to become the first aerial voyager in England. He described his balloon in letters to his guardian, Chevalier Gherado Campagni, rejecting the Montgolfier’s method of inflating the balloon with hot air as being too dangerous in that it required a constant fire being carried aloft to be applied to the contents of the envelope. Lunardi chose instead to use inflammable air produced by the action of vitriolic acid on metals or semimetals.

The greatest of the early balloon journeys was the first aerial crossing of the English Channel by the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American Dr. John Jefferies in a hydrogen balloon. On January 7, 1785, they took off from Dover, Kent in a balloon which had only a small margin of lift considering the weight of the two men and their equipment. At one stage of the flight the balloon began losing height so rapidly that the aeronauts, to avoid going into the water, threw overboard everything they could to lighten it. They conspicuously arrived in France wearing only their undergarments.    

Newspaper accounts of the accomplishments of the Montgolfier brothers, Professor Charles,and other balloonists of the time, generated tremendous interest in the balloon as a sporting vehicle, and a money-maker for showmen and daredevils. Ballooning became such a fad that "even women" trusted going aloft in the fascinating new conveyance, the first woman to fly being a Madame Thible, who ascended from Lyons in a montgolfiere  with the French painter Fleurant.

Artists and craftsmen also got in on the act, decorating every conceivable object, from cabinets and bureaus to vases and snuff boxes, with images of balloons. Some wealthy people even arranged "balloon rooms," where everything including the chandeliers was decorated with or took the shape of a balloon.

Several days after Pilatre de Rozier’s first flight with a passenger in the Montgolfier hot-air balloon, Professor Charles had also taken up a passenger, one Andre Giraud de Vilette. Afterwards, in a letter to the Journal de Paris, de Vilette commented on the ease with which he had been able to view Paris and its surroundings. He wrote:

         From this moment I was convinced that this apparatus, costing but little, could be made very useful to an army for discoveringthe positions of its enemy, his movements, hisadvances. and his dispositions. . . .

In the not too distant future, Napoleon Bonaparte, consummate dreamer as well as master military strategist, would become the first commander to recognize the possibilities of the airship as an instrument of war, and form an air corps using balloons.

However, after Napoleon’s experiments little further thought would be given to using balloons as part of a military strategy, even though the idea went back, at least on paper, to 1670. In that year the Jesuit priest, Father Francesco de Lana-Terzi designed a balloon-ship, which was the precursor of lighter-than-air craft. He doubted that God would ever allow it to be built as, he perceived its immense capacity for destruction. With uncanny foresight, de Lana-Terzi described the ease with which his balloon-ship could bomb fortresses, fleets, and cities.

No nation would successfully establish a corps of war balloons until the American Civil War. This would be accomplished, although not without considerable opposition and difficulty, by the balloonist Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. 


The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

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