Joseph-Michel Montgolfière was born on 26th August 1740. The Montgolfières had 16 children, and Joseph was their 12th child. Joseph had great opportunities to study and contribute to the flourishing family business, but he did not like school or work. His parents owned the well-known Montgolfière paper manufacturing company in Annonay, France. Though Joseph was deemed worthless in life, he was intelligent, curious, and inventive. Besides his considerable knowledge about the progress in paper and fabric production, he read science books and also studied designs that discussed how the flying dream could be achieved.
A story goes that, one night in 1777, Joseph was sitting by the fire at his home. He was pondering over the great military issue of the time that troubled many French people—the fortress of Gibraltar, strongly defended by the British, could not be accessed by land or sea. A great dreamer, Joseph imagined whether French troops could be lifted and floated by air above the heads of the English, by the same force that was lifting the sparks from the fire. He knew he had an experiment on hand when he also noticed the chemise (or skirt) that was hanging to dry, billow upward from the smoke.
The next day he made a fabric box supported by thin wooden frames at the corners and left a small opening at the base. Then he lit a small fire at the opening which filled the box with hot smoke and, to his joy, the contraption floated up to the ceiling. Thrilled, he wrote to his younger brother, Jacques-Étienne, “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.”
Étienne was the 15th child. Unlike Joseph, Étienne was hard-working, levelheaded, and had a businesslike temperament. He had studied architecture in Paris and ran the family business with great success after the sudden death of their father in 1772.
However, even Étienne could not contain his excitement at his brother’s discovery and joined Joseph in his quests. They continued with more experiments by filling cloth spheres or paper bags with hot smoke. But like the scientists of their days, the brothers had no understanding about how the smoke or hot air made the balloon rise. They concluded that stronger the smoke, higher the balloon will rise, and tried their best to generate strong smoke by burning damp wool, chopped straw, old shoes, rotten meat, and even alcohol-soaked rags. Then they would allow the hot air to permeate the inside of the spheres, and once inflated they would release them in the air.
After some trials, they organized a public demonstration with their “machine.” They announced that after filling their “machine” using a simple process, the machine will rise to the clouds. The feat seemed incredible to the people and with Joseph’s pitiful reputation, people had more reason to doubt its success.
On the appointed day, on 4th June 1783, with great skepticism, French scholars, nobles and common folks made their way to the square at Annonay.
At the launch site, the brothers and volunteers generated and filled the cloth sphere with the precious hot smoke. Upon inflation, the envelope contained 28,000 cubic feet of air, weighed 500 pounds and stood 35 feet tall and 110 feet round. With Joseph’s signal to release it, the balloon rose with majestic determination and soared to 6,000 feet.
By now, the crowd was ecstatic. For ten minutes, the balloon floated in the northerly breeze like a ship on water and landed a mile and a half away. For the first time in human history, people had witnessed an aircraft fly and travel a distance in the sky.
It was a bold attempt fraught with difficulties, and the slightest mishap or accident would have scrapped the project and subjected the brothers to severe criticism.
The brothers struck a great partnership, but it was Joseph’s inventive genius that gave humanity its first balloon to fly humans, and their public-flying spectacle ushered in an era of manned flight.
Soon, on November 21, 1783, scientist Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first aeronauts to fly in a Montgolfière balloon over Paris. They covered a distance of five miles. Their balloon “the Réveillon” was almost the size of a six-story building – 70 feet high, 46 feet in diameter, and about 70,000 cubic feet in capacity.
In honor of the Montgolfière’s invention and the success of the first manned flight in a Montgolfière balloon, the modern hot-air balloon is called the Montgolfière. The hot air balloon is different from a gas balloon as the latter uses hydrogen or helium to fly and works on a slightly different technique. While the materials and technology are very different now, the principles used by the Montgolfière brothers continue to carry modern sport balloons aloft.
Related stories about the first balloon flights on this site