The First Hot-Air Balloon 1783

On June 4th, 1783, Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier demonstrated the first balloon heated by hot air to the nobles of Annonay in south of France. This was after months of experiments.

The Montgolfier family ran a large paper factory and had 16 children and they all worked there. Joseph was the 12th child and Etienne was the 15th. They were very different.

Joseph was very untidy, a dreamer, imaginative, inventive but rubbish at business. He was also slightly absent minded and shy. His mind would wander, he left his horse at a hostelry once. But worse, he and his wife were asked to a business meeting in Lyon, they stayed at an inn on the outskirts. On the morning of the meeting, he went for a quick walk, and then decided to walk to the meeting. When they asked where his wife was, he was mortified that he had forgotten her. He had left her sleeping, but when he returned, she had been asked to leave the room and the inn and was sitting outside waiting.

Etienne was very different, good at maths, mechanics and very self-disciplined. He was a bit quick tempered and a tad mean, but very reliable.

With 16 children, there was not always enough work for them all in the paper factory, and despite their age, they still lived at home. Joseph was 42 and Etienne 37years old. They loitered a lot in front of the range.

Anyway the story goes that the two brothers were lounging in front of the large cooking range and their Mothers chemise was drying on the rack. They watched as the chemise inflated over the stove caused by rising heat. As the pot on the range was slightly overcooked, there was a fair amount of smoke as well and they assumed it was smoke that made it inflate and rise. Joseph &Etienne, wanted to make something that flew. So they practised making cube shaped frames out of wood and stretching taffeta across them. They realised taffeta was too porous and the cube would be better as a globe.

The taffeta was backed with paper and each gore was held together with buttons. The test flight was from the factory in Vidalon and they used wet straw to produce smoke. It was so effective that it actually tore the strings from the hands of people holding them and flew off for ‘a League’ – about 3 miles I think. That was December 1782.

The brother went back to the drawing board, including trying to find out how to make the blackest smoke. Old meat, old clothes and wet straw were favourite.

In six or seven months, they were satisfied. Etienne then invited all the nobles from Viverais to Place des Cordeliers in the Centre of Annonay to watch the first public launch.

Monday 4th June 1783 was wet and grey. The Square in the middle of Annonay was filled with the gentry and the governing body from the area.

The brothers wanted black smoke as that is what they thought made it rise. Wet straw, old meat, old wool and waste from the factory were piled into a brazier. The envelope – the coloured bit -was suspended on ropes from the top of two poles.

They have held a re-enactment in Annonay since 1973 and here you can see the balloon, the fire and the actual Montgolfier descendants dressed up in the costume of that age. The brothers had ‘peasants’ holding strings or rope hanging down from all around the balloon, but as it heated and got bigger very quickly, they all panicked and let go, and away she flew.

The balloon flew for about two miles and landed on a wall and when the wind blew it off, the remaining embers in the brazier set the balloon alight. The local farmers were too scared to go and see or rescue it. So that was the first flight of a hot-air balloon.

The photographs are mainly taken by Jean-Pierre Girard who lives in Annonay. Every year the whole town takes part in the re-enactment of the first inflation. Balloon pilots and locals dress in the fashion of 1783 and join in.

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