French physician Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, the marquis d’ Arlandes, make the first untethered hot-air balloon flight, flying 5.5 miles over Paris in about 25 minutes. Their cloth balloon was crafted by French paper-making brothers Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, inventors of the world’s first successful hot-air balloons.
For time immemorial, humanity has dreamed of flight. Greek mythology tells of Daedalus, who made wings of wax, and Leonardo da Vinci drew designs of flying machines and envisioned the concept of a helicopter in the 15th century. It was not until the 1780s, however, that human flight became a reality.
The first successful flying device may not have been a Montgolfier balloon but an “ornithopter”—a glider-like aircraft with flapping wings. According to a hazy record, the German architect Karl Friedrich Meerwein succeeded in lifting off the ground in an ornithopter in 1781. Whatever the veracity of this record, Meerwein’s flying machine never became a viable means of flight, and it was the Montgolfier brothers who first took men into the sky.
Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier ran a prosperous paper business in the town of Vidalon in southern France. Their success allowed them to finance their interest in scientific experimentation. In 1782, they discovered that combustible materials burned under a lightweight paper or fabric bag would cause the bag to rise into the air. From this phenomenon, they deduced that smoke causes balloons to rise. Actually, it is hot air that causes balloons to rise, but their error did not interfere with their subsequent achievements.
On June 4, 1783, the brothers gave the first public demonstration of their discovery, in Annonay. An unmanned balloon heated by burning straw and wool rose 3,000 feet into the air before settling to the ground nearly two miles away. In their test of a hot-air balloon, the Montgolfiers were preceded by Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a Brazilian priest who launched a small hot-air balloon in the palace of the king of Portugal in 1709. The Montgolfiers were unaware of Lourenço’s work, however, and quickly surpassed it.
On September 19, the Montgolfiers sent a sheep, a rooster, and a duck aloft in one of their balloons in a prelude to the first manned flight. The balloon, painted azure blue and decorated with golden fleurs-de-lis, lifted up from the courtyard of the palace of Versailles in the presence of King Louis XVI. The barnyard animals stayed afloat for eight minutes and landed safely two miles away. On October 15, Jean-François Pilátre de Rozier made a tethered test flight of a Montgolfier balloon, briefly rising into the air before returning to earth.
The first untethered hot-air balloon flight occurred before a large, expectant crowd in Paris on November 21. Pilátre and d’Arlandes, an aristocrat, rose up from the grounds of royal Cháteau La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne and flew approximately five miles. Humanity had at last conquered the sky.
The Montgolfier brothers were honored by the French Acadámie des Sciences for their achievement. They later published books on aeronautics and pursued important work in other scientific fields.