The First Gas Balloon Flight

Did you know the first gas balloon made its flight in August 1783? It was designed by Jacques Charles and Les Frères Robert, it carried no passengers or cargo.

The construction was a bit hurried as news had reached Professor Jacques Charles that the Montgolfier brothers had launched a hot air balloon two months previously and the King wanted to see it in Paris.Professor Charles was known for his temperamental outbursts and he was determined to fly for the King himself. He was pushing the brothers Robert exceedingly hard to get it finished, but one of the Robert brothers would sulk if he was shouted at. Sounds like an interesting working team.

Charles conceived the idea that hydrogen would be a suitable lifting agent for balloons having studied the work of Robert Boyle’s ‘Boyle’s Law’ which was published 100 years earlier in 1662, and of his contemporaries Henry Cavendish, Joseph Black and Tiberius Cavallo. He designed the craft and then worked in conjunction with the Robert brothers, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis, to build it in their workshop at the Place des Victoires in Paris.

The brothers invented the methodology for the lightweight, airtight gas bag by dissolving rubber in a solution of turpentine and varnished the sheets of silk that were stitched together to make the main envelope. They used alternate strips of red and white silk, but the discolouration of the varnishing/rubberising process left a pale red and yellow result.

Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched the world’s first hydrogen filled balloon on August 27, 1783, from the Champ de Mars, (now the site of the Eiffel Tower) where Ben Franklin was among the crowd of onlookers. The balloon was comparatively small, a 35 cubic metre sphere of rubberised silk, and only capable of lifting abouttwenty pounds. It was filled with hydrogen that had been made by pouring nearly a quarter of a tonne of sulphuric acid onto a half a tonne of scrap iron. The hydrogen gas was fed into the balloon via lead pipes, but as it was not passed through cold water, great difficulty was experienced in filling the balloon completely (the gas was hot when produced, but as it cooled in the balloon, it contracted).

Daily progress bulletins were issued on the inflation; and the crowd was so great that on the 26th August the balloon was moved secretly by night to the Champ de Mars, a distance of 4 kilometres. After it launched, the balloon flew northwards for 45 minutes, pursued by chasers on horseback.It landed in Gonesse and was attacked by terrified villagers.

Les Frères Robert were two French brothers, both were well established engineers. Anne-Jean Robert (1758–1820) and Nicola-Louis Robert (1760–1820), built the balloon for Jacques Charles. Nicola-Louis Robert also invented the first machine to produce paper in continuous sheets. Nothing to do with aviation, but links coincidentally to the Montgolfier brothers with paper mills in Annonay.

On 1 December 1783 their second hydrogen-filled balloon made a manned flight piloted by Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert, 10 days after the first manned flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon.

A gas balloon is a balloon that stays in the air because it is filled with a gas less dense than air or lighter than air (such as helium or hydrogen). A gas balloon may also be called a Charlièrefrom its inventor, Jacques Charles.


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