On A Balloon Flight

Balloons are in the news lately in the United States, so a story about their origins might be timely and appropriate. Steve and Joe Montgolfier were a couple of French brothers who had inherited their dad’s paper company. Their firm made bags and wrapping paper as well as paper for stationers and books. With their considerable profits, the brothers began experimenting with, among other things, filling bags with hot air and letting them float up, up, and away. (The brothers also invented transparent paper, by the way.) This was the late 1700s, and such things as floating bags of hot air were unusual to say the least. But it was the period of experimentation and scientific enquiry, and these brothers get credit for creating the first successful hot air balloons made first out of paper and eventually out of fabric.

After starting small, the pair eventually crafted a bag that was over 30 feet wide and over 50 feet tall. This experimental, unmanned bag floated over 1,000 feet up over the French countryside. The success of the experiment pushed the brothers to make a larger, grander bag that could, conceivable, carry living things from one place to another. Now, based on their diaries and on conversations with them at the time, the Montgolfiers had no idea what science was behind the way their hot air bags worked. They surmised that it was the composition of the smoke from their fire that created the lift rather than the heat from the fires making the bags rise. In any case, they get and deserve the credit for being the first in the modern world to create a method for flight over 100 years before the Wright brothers invented their heavier than air craft.

Finally, it was time for a test flight with passengers in the balloon. The news of the Montgolfiers’ experiments had spread, and the brothers were summoned to show the contraption to King Louis of France himself at the royal palace of Versailles. And, this time, the balloon was over 7 stories tall and over 45 feet wide. On September 12, 1783, the royal court was seated outside to watch the event. King Louis “volunteered” three members of his royal estate to be the proverbial guinea pigs and be the first to ride in the Montgolfiers’ balloon. Of course, the trio had no say in the matter–the King, after all, had decreed it. A female–Madame Brebis–and two males–Monsieurs Coq and Canard–took their places inside the basket of the balloon, and soon, they became the first beings to rise above the earth in a lighter than aircraft. This trio soared over 1500 feet above the palace grounds, and they landed safely over 6 miles away. The experiment was a success, and the brothers received the court’s thanks and a handsome reward. As you might expect, experiments such as this soon became lost in the ensuing French Revolution, but the triumph of the Montgolfiers set the stage for the continuing experiments of the 1800s in balloon and dirigible flight.

We do not know how those first three passengers reacted to what they witnessed from the balloon basket that fine September day. No one asked them, and, it wouldn’t have mattered if anyone had.

For, you see, brebis, coq, and canard, are the French words for ewe, rooster, and duck after all.


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