First published in Christian Parlor Magazine (1844-1855), Vol. 9, 1852, p 69. (5 pages)





On Friday the fifth of June, 1782, the Assemblee des Etats of Viverais met on the invitation of the brothers Montgolfier; paper makers at Annonay, around a vast linen bag, covered with paper enveloped in a network of twine, the whole resting on a frame sixteen feet square, attached at the four corners by cords which were joined to the network. Bag, network, and frame weighed about 600 pounds. This machine, according to the two paper makers, was destined to ascend in the name of philosophy, to take possession of the region of meteors. At sight of these formidable preparations the members of the Assembly thought for a moment that the brothers Montgolfier had lost their senses. Meanwhile, by means of a fire of damp straw, kindled under the frame, and some ingredients thrown into the flames, the bag became inflated and grew into a sphere of 110 feet in circumference. The brothers Montgolfier having cut the cord which retained the balloon, in less than ten minutes it rose more than 1000 feet above the heads of the astonished spectators. Enthusiasm succeeding to stupefaction, the members of the Assembly drew up a description of the experiment in Pindaric terms, and very soon the Gazette and Mercure de France had informed learned Europe that the problem of Architas, declared chimerical by all the academies, had just been solved by obscure mechanics.

Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier divided the glory of a discovery which was destined to immortalize their names.

I need not describe the sensation produced at Paris by the experiment at Annonay. The American war went out of fashion; and aerial navigation became the only subject of discussion. The learned were making a thousand conjectures on the mysterious substance used in this experiment, when a philosopher named Charles explained the mechanism of the balloon of the brothers Montgolfier, demonstrating that its ascension was owing to the expansion of the air in the interior by caloric, which caused the inflated balloon to displace a mass of air of superior weight to that of its envelope and the expanded air it contained. Instead of employing air expanded by a fire of straw, Charles proposed to fill a linen balloon, daubed with gum elastic, with an inflammable gas (hydrogen) which, being lighter than the atmospheric air at the surface of the earth, should produce the same effect, with this difference, that the air expanded by fire loses its elasticity in traversing the atmospheric stratum in which it is in equilibrium, while in employing inflammable gas, the balloon must sustain itself indefinitely in atmospheric regions the density of which is equal to that of the same gas. According to Charles, the pretended mysterious substance of the brothers Montgolfier (which it is since known was chopped horsehair and wool) was only a jugglery unworthy of science, and by which only the members of the States of Viverais could have allowed themselves to be imposed upon .

The Parisians, proud of possessing a natural philosopher who could rival the brothers Montgolfiers, opened spontaneously a national subscription, the first ever raised in France, and in two days furnished Charles with the means of constructing his balloon.

He confided its execution to an engineer named Robert, who constructed it in a vast workshop situated on the Place des Victoires. After filling it with inflammable gas in the workshop they tried it, and it was decided that it should be transported at night, ready inflated with hydrogen, on a huge litter, to the inclosure constructed in the middle of the Champ des Mars, where its ascension was to take place on the morrow. There was something fantastic in this inflated balloon, 12 feet in diameter, borne on a litter by four men preceded by lighted torches and escorted by a detachment of the watch on horse and foot. The coachmen whom they met on the way were so struck with the eight, that their first impulse was to stop their carriages and prostrate themselves humbly, with hats off, during the whole time it was passing.

The 27th of August, 1785, the capital was in motion. As there were no privileged places, princes and mechanics, duchesses and grisettes awaited, pell-mell, with that patience which characterizes Parisian curiosity, the hour fixed for the experiment. Charles and Robert were occupying themselves in replacing the gas which the balloon had lost in its terrestrial voyage, when suddenly a movement was made near the inclosure, and, like that produced by the fall of a stone into the bosom of a tranquil lake, undulated to the farthest rank of the spectators. Joseph Montgolfier had attempted to penetrate the reserved space, and had been roughly turned out by Charles. At last. the clock struck five, a cannon was fired, and amid the acclamations of the people, the balloon of Charles rose in less than two minutes one thousand yards, and was lost in the clouds. A heavy rain could not disperse the crowd, who saluted with enthusiasm the successive appearances and disappearances of the aërostat. At last, the balloon reappearing no more, the crowd slowly dispersed. The most eager hastened to inquire what had become of the national balloon. It had sustained itself in the air, during three quarters of an hour; but as Charles had inflated it too much, the expansion of the hydrogen in the less dense strata of air had occasioned a rent in the upper part, and it had fallen near Ecouen. The peasants of Gonesse, taking the aërostat for a monster fallen from heaven, armed themselves with pitchforks and scythes, marched against it in solid column, tore it in pieces, and were dragging its skin in triumph, when the cavaliers arrived to rescue its fragments.

The glory of the brothers Montgolfier was obscured; all Paris was in favor of Charles ; the Academy of Sciences, which rarely agrees with the public, took sides with the Montgolfiers. It caused to be constructed a balloon of 70 feet in height and 40 in diameter, under the direction of Joseph Montgolfier; it was filled with smoke; Montgolfier did not forget to add the vapor of chopped wool; but, notwithstanding all these precautions, the rain defeating the experiment, the academic balloon, leaving a garden in the Faubourg St. Antoine, rose only 60 feet and fell heavily on a house in the same Faubourg.

The Academy was in consternation; Montgolfier was in despair. By way of consoling him, Louis XVI. ordained that the aërostatic experiment which was to take place at Versailles should be made with a montgolfière. Montgolfier and the Academy set themselves about the work, and, as the gods love an odd number, constructed, for the royal experiment, a balloon fifty-seven feet in height and forty-one in diameter. This balloon, let off at Versailles, on the 10th of September, carried up a cage in which were a sheep, a cock, and a pheasant. It ascended 240 toises, and fell into the forest of Vaucresson, where the guards saw it slowly descend. The sheep, the cock, and the pheasant did not appear to be at all fatigued with their journey.

This experiment gave to the montgolfières a the superiority over balloons of inflammable gas, which ascended higher, it is true, but which were always torn by the expansive force of the hydrogen. The partisans of Montgolfier caused to be circulated an engraving representing the balloon of Charles bursting in the clouds, and the philosopher, with mouth open and arms extended; appearing to be waiting for it to come down with these two Latin words: Carolus expectat, Charles attend, (charlatan.)

The partisans of Charles replied with more or less spirit, and some sword thrusts were exchanged ; but very soon Pilatre des Rosiers announced that he would ascend in person by a montgolfière. Pilatre des Rosiers was a savant of the second order, with a restless and enterprising mind, a founder of scientific and literary societies, ready to demand of martyrdom the immortality to which his genius could not attain. He caused to be constructed a balloon seventy feet in height and forty-six: in diameter; he embellished it with fleurs de lis, traced upon it the king's cipher, ornamented it with the twelve signs of the zodiac, interspersed with suns and masks, eagles and garlands, suspended to this superb machine a circular gallery of wicker-work covered with linen; and after having inflated his balloon, armed with a flag on which was inscribed, Sic itur ad astra, (it is thus we ascend to the stars,) he set out on the first aerial voyage, rose without accident two hundred feet above the earth, balanced a few moments in the air, and tranquilly descended to the ground.

He immediately inflated his balloon again, threw out the stone which had served as ballast in his circular gallery, suspended beneath this gallery a chafing dish, provided himself with straw, and, taking with him one M. Giroud de la Villette, rose again 324 feet, remained is the air as long as he had straw to feed his fire, and gently descended with his companion.

As the principal object of aërostatics was to furnish man with the means of rivalling the eagle and the condor, the montgolfières were again the fashion. Charles had been deserted like a dethroned prince, when he announced in his turn that he and his friend Robert would attempt aerial navigation in a balloon filled with inflammable gas. The experiment took place at the Champ des Mars. Charles took care not to fill his balloon entirely; to arrange a valve which he could open at will to give vent to the gas, and took ballast to lighten it if necessary. This experiment, which brought all Paris together, restored to the beloved philosopher all his popularity. Charles and Robert rose, not like Pilatre des Rosiere 300 feet above the earth, but more than 3000, touched the clouds, descended and remounted alternately, and at last landed safe and sound at two leagues distance. Henceforth the aërostat with inflammable gas was definitively adopted, and Charles and Robert made a fortune by constructing little balloons of goldbeater's skin which they sold at extravagant prices, each Parisian wishing to have his balloon in his chamber, and an apparatus to disengage the hydrogen from it at pleasure. This fashion passed into foreign countries; aërostatics became a monomania. The greatest personages, the most beautiful ladies, the Due de Chartres, MM. de Montalembert and Bellevue, Mesdames de Montalembert, de Podenas, de La Garde, ascended in balloons.

Pilatre des Rosiers, seeing himself distanced by Charles and Robert, borrowed their balloon, set out from Boulogne, crossed the Channel, and descended in England. Although the entente cordiale did not then exist between France and England, the French flag which floated over the car of des Rosiers was saluted by all the English forts, and the most splendid reception was given to the aëronaut, who returned to France in his balloon, bringing an Englishman and a British flag to bear witness to his courage.

The brothers Montgolfier, of whom Pilatre des Rosiers had been one of the warmest partisans, reproached him with having abandoned their aërostat for that of Charles. Des Rosiers, to unite the two parties into which all Europe was divided, undertook to pass over to England in a balloon half inflated with inflammable gas, which he would expand by means of a furnace placed in his car. But hardly had he risen in the air, when, the fire inflaming the gas, the balloon burst, and the unfortunate man fell, like Icarus, into the waves of the sea.

The catastrophe of Pilatre des Rosiers did not discourage aëronauts and experiments multiplied. After having found means to rise in the air, the next thing was to navigate the balloon. Mathematicians declared it an impossible thing, because the aerial navigator could find no point of support. All the objections of science did not prevent the public from believing in the possibility of an impossible thing, because it was ardently desired. A visionary, by the name of Blanchard, after having vainly sought perpetual motion, had undertaken to construct a flying boat, which would not fly at all. When the brothers Montgolfier discovered aërostation, he abandoned his boat, provided himself with wings to perform the office of oars, inflated his balloon, set out from tire Champ des Mare, crying out to the public that he should alight at Montmartre, where an excellent dinner awaited him, and came down at Vauvres, where he was not expected.

Blanchard, who with his flying boat had already, been the laughing-stock of Paris, determined to have his revenge. He re-ascended in a balloon, provided with a vast umbrella, and when he touched the clouds, cut the cord which attached his car to the balloon, and fell, safe and sound, by a parachute.

I might as well enumerate the attempts made to find perpetual motion and the quadrature of the circle, as to relate all the systems presented to the Academy of Sciences for the management of balloons. I will say, however, that Garnerin believed he should be able to use the aërostat for long voyages, by seeking in the higher atmospheric regions the trade winds, which he supposed to exist in an opposite direction to those which prevail on the ocean.

Neither will I mention the catastrophes which have been for the most part the result of the imprudence of aëronauts. I will only allude to the benefits which tactics and science have obtained from the balloon.

At the battle of Fleurus, General Jourdain used an aërostat to learn the disposition of the enemy's army. Gay-Lussac sought in a balloon, at 7000 metres above the level of the sea, the air, which, analyzed by him, was found to contain the same proportions of oxygen and azote with that taken from the surface of the ground in the court of the Polytechnic School.

Although the important results of aërostatics are very limited, and most aëronauts are at present considered in the light of intrepid rope dancers, the invention of the balloon would be a source of glory to France, if this invention did not, like all others, claim a higher antiquity.

The discovery of the ancient process of Architas, made in 1782 by the brothers Montgolfier and Charles, had nearly been made in London, in 1781, by a philosopher named Cavallo, who, after having blown soap-bubbles full of hydrogen, comprehending the possibility of obtaining the ascension of more considerable bodies, attempted the construction of a rude balloon; it was an oblong bag, four feet in circumference, of fine paper. But fortunately for us, the hydrogen with which he filled it escaped through the paper. Then he proposed to employ goldbeater's skin, and would have succeeded in his object; but he postponed his experiment, and the brothers Montgolfier were beforehand with him.

It follows from this fact that the law upon which aërostatics is founded was perfectly well known to natural philosophers, who, after the experiments of Jovicelli and Pascal, knew very well that the air was heavy, and explained by the difference in the weight of gases the ascension of smoke and that of hydrogen.

A Sieur de La Folie, native of Rouen, in a work published in 1775, under the title of The Philosopher without Pretension, had nevertheless pretended to raise a globe three feet in diameter by means of electricity; the frontispiece of his book represents a man in a species of cage surrounded by clouds and crowned by two globes suspended in the air. But the system of M. de La Folie was too much like his name, and I need not dwell upon it.

A Dominican, professor of philosophy and theology at Avignon, father Joseph Galien, had published in 1766 a work entitled: The Art of Navigating in the Air. He proposed to construct a vessel of strong linen doubled, well waxed and tarred, covered with skins, and fortified at intervals with stout cords. This vessel was to be larger than the city of Avignon, and its height equal to that of a mountain. One of its sides was to be at least a million of toises square. This vessel might, in case of necessity, transport in the air an army with its artillery and provisions for a year. The mechanism of its ascension consisted in that the air being lighter at the summit of the mountains than at the level of the sea, by filling his vessel with the mountain air, it must necessarily displace, being on the ground, a mass of air of weight superior to that with which it was filled, adding at the same time the weight of the machine; and this was the reason why the good father made his aerial vessel as large as the city of Avignon and as high as a mountain.

Unfortunately, father Galien was not in the highest rank of philosophers; but from this aërostatic Utopia, it seems that the principal cause of the ascension of aërostats, which proceeds from the difference of density in gases, was known as early as 1766, and that the brothers Montgolfier had only the fortunate idea of resolving a very simple problem.

A century before (in 1670) father Lana, of Brescia, a Jesuit, published in Italian a work entitled: Dell' Arte Maestra, another treatise upon aerial ascension. The principal agent of his machine consisted of four hollow spheres or globes of copper in which a perfect vacuum was to be produced; their diameter was to be 20 feet. In order to produce a vacuum, it was necessary to fill the balloons entirely with water, then reverse them to let the water run out, and close the orifice at the moment it had entirely escaped. The reverend gentleman did not suspect that the reaction of the air would prevent the balloons from emptying themselves. Finally Lana allowed so little thickness to his copper as to render the construction of globes absolutely impossible. But, setting aside this, that is to sny, if balloons had been constructed, if a perfect vacuum had been produced, if the pressure of the exterior air had not flattened the copper until it had been counterbalanced by the expansive force of the interior air, it is certain that his four globes would have been perfectly competent to raise the boat with its sails, as we find it represented in the Arte Maestra.

A century before Lana, J. C. Scaliger, in a dissertation against Cardan, on the subject of the flying dove of Architas of which Horace speaks in his odes, points out the method of constructing this dove. "Nothing is more easy," says he; "the frame can be composed of the pith of reeds and covered with goldbeater's skin. By means of a light mechanism, motion can be given to its wings." Scaliger forgot to state that it would be indispensable to warm the interior air of the dove when it was desired to have it fly.

Thus then, five hundred years before our era, Architas had found means to raise in the air a balloon in the form of a dove ; for we have reason to believe that the methods employed by this philosopher were the very same with those used at present by aëronauts to raise their balloon. As for the return of the dove, obedient to the voice of Architas, it is evidently a fable. To a surprising fact, the imagination always adds impossible circumstances; but I firmly believe that long before Architas the aërostat was known in those ages called fabulous, and which, I think, are but a vague memory of a great lost civilization, which poets have called the reign of the gods. Those dragons vomiting flames, which carried in the air Ceres and the Medeas, were only primitive montgolfières; the lame Vulcan of the Iliad, who gave his arm to two automata, to lead them into the presence of Tethis, was a Vaucanson of the heroic ages. As saith the wisest of men, there is nothing new under the sun.

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