The First Hot Air Balloon

The history of modern hot air ballooning began in France in 1783. Two brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfiere, launched the first hot air balloon in September of 1783 with an odd trio of passengers – a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The king and his court turned out to see the spectacle, and they were not disappointed. The balloon rose to more than 1000 feet and then floated down, safely returning its three passengers to the ground.

But the two brothers who became the inventors of modern air ballooning certainly didn’t start life as inventors. Their father owned a paper mill, and made sure both of his sons received a good education. Joseph went to a private school and later started a chemical business before returning home to work in the mill with his father. Etienne studied as an architect, but also returned to the family business when his father retired.

In 1782 they became interested in understanding why smoke rose and whether it could be used to lift man into the sky. They began experimenting, moving from smaller balloons to larger ones. By the time they lifted the barnyard animals into the sky, they had already successfully launched an unmanned full-size balloon.

After the barnyard trio’s successful flight, the brothers moved on to manned flight. In November 1783, they launched the first manned hot air balloon flight. Pilate de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes were the pilots of the silk-and-paper balloon, and the two stayed aloft for about 25 minutes, ascending approximately 500 feet and traveling about 5 1/2 miles from their origination point in a Paris park.

Legend says the pilots gave champagne after landing to the local farmers to alleviate their fears of the suspicious craft descending from the sky, but he National Balloon Museum in Iowa disputes this story, saying research shows the balloon actually landed in an empty vineyard with no witnesses.

The first manned flight in a hot air balloon was quickly followed by the first gas balloon ride. Just 10 days after the Montgolfier’s balloon carried its two human passengers into the sky, French physicist Jacques Alexander Charles launched the first manned gas balloon flight on December 1. It also started in Paris, but lasted much longer; the balloon stayed aloft 2 1/2 hours and traveled 25 miles.

Ballooning quickly took off from there. French balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first people to cross the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon. The crossing took two and a half hours, and nearly ended in disaster – the pilots had to toss most of their ballast overboard after the balloon unexpectedly lost gas and almost fell into the channel. Months later, Pilate de Rozier, one of the two pilots in the first manned Montgolfiere, became the first person to die in a balloon accident as he attempted to cross the Channel.

Blanchard later flew the first hot air balloon in North America, in 1793. But it wasn’t until 1830 that Charles Ferson Durant became the first American to pilot a hot air balloon in North America. He lifted off from New York’s Castle Garden to drop leaflets that contained a poem he had written about the joys of flight.

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