How the Montgolfier Brothers Helped Pioneer Aviation | History Hit

How the Montgolfier Brothers Helped Pioneer Aviation

Portrait d'Etienne de Montgolfier (right); Portrait de Joseph de Montgolfier (left)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

French aviation pioneers, balloonists and paper manufacturers Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745-1799) were born into a family of paper manufacturers. The brothers were well-suited as an invention duo, with Joseph-Michael’s visionary talents combined with Jacques-Étienne’s astute business skills yielding a lifetime of remarkable inventions that were celebrated across the world.

Their invention, the Montgolfière-style hot air balloon, propelled the brothers to international stardom when, in 1783, it carried Jacques-Étienne in the first ever successful balloon flight with a human pilot.

Here’s how the brilliant Montgolfier brothers changed aviation history forever.

They were two of sixteen children

Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne were born in Annonay, France, to paper manufacturer Pierre Montgolfier and Anne Duret, who had sixteen children. Joseph was an impractical dreamer, while Étienne had an eye for business. Étienne was sent to Paris to train as an architect.

When their father died in 1772, Étienne was recalled home to Annonay to run the family paper manufacturing business. Over the coming decade, the business became more efficient and profitable.

Paris in 1753

Joseph was inspired by laundry drying by the fire

Of the two brothers, Joseph was the most interested in aeronautics: as early as 1775 he built parachutes, and even once jumped from the family house. In 1777, Joseph watched as laundry drying over a fire formed pockets of hot air and billowed upwards.

In 1782, he conducted his first experiments, and quickly theorised that smoke itself was the buoyant part, and contained within it a special gas, which he coined ‘Montgolfier Gas’ which had a particular property called levity, which is why he then preferred to use smouldering fuel. He made a small, taffeta-covered box rise by lighting some paper underneath it.

Now working together with Étienne, they scaled up the box and conducted their first test flight in December 1782; however, they quickly lost control of the device, which floated two kilometres and was destroyed by a passerby after it landed.

They publicly shared their invention in 1783

In 1783, the brothers made a public demonstration of their device as a way of claiming the invention. They constructed a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth tightened with three thin layers of paper inside.

On June 4, 1783, the brothers held their first public presentation of the balloon at Annonay in front of a group of dignitaries. The balloon flew 2 kilometres and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 metres. News of the flying machine quickly spread to Paris, and Étienne was sent there to make further demonstrations. The more shy and unkempt Joseph remained at home.

First public demonstration in Annonay, 4 June 1783 (left); First Montgolfier brothers balloon, 1783 (right)

Their prototype hot air balloon carried a sheep, duck and a rooster

In Paris, Étienne found a successful wallpaper manufacturer to make him a large hot air balloon, which he tested privately on 11 September, then shared publicly on 19 September. The ‘Aérostat Réveillon’ was flown with the first living beings in a basket attached to the balloon: a sheep, a duck and a rooster (though King Louis XVI had suggested that they send condemned criminals instead).

The sheep, called Mountauciel (‘climb-to-the-sky’) was chosen because it was thought to have the approximate physiology of a human, while the duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted, but was included as a control for effects created by the aircraft itself. The rooster was included as a further control since it was a bird that didn’t fly at high altitudes.

Witnessed by King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette at the royal palace in Versailles, the balloon stayed in the air for 8 minutes, crossed 3km and achieved a height of 460m, then safely landed. It was a roaring success.

On 17 December 1903 the Wright Brothers successfully completed the first manned, controlled and sustained flight in human history.
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They made a balloon with King Louis XVI’s face on it

The King then allowed a flight with humans, so Étienne built a 60,000-cubic-foot balloon. It was decorated with gold figures on a deep blue background, including fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns with Louis XVI’s face in the centre.

On around 15 October 1783, Étienne Montgolfier became the first human to lift off the earth in a balloon, making a tethered test flight from the yard of the wallpaper maker’s workshop. A little while later the same day, Pilâtre de Rozier and an army officer, the marquis d’Arlandes, became the second people to do so, flying at around 3,000 feet above Paris for 9 kilometres, for 25 minutes.

Balloon merchandise was sold to the public

The early flights caused a sensation. Many engravings commemorated the events, while chairs were designed with balloon backs, mantel clocks were produced that featured balloon designs and crockery decorated with balloon pictures were popular.

In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers’ father Pierre was elevated to the nobility by King Louis XVI of France. Exactly 200 years later, the Montgolfier brothers were inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Lucy Davidson