The day a duck, a sheep and a cockerel took to the air in 1783

On the 19th September 1783,  Etienne Montgolfier, a paper maker, launched the first hot air balloon with passengers, it was called ‘Aerostat Reveillon’. The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.

After the successful launch of a hot air balloon in June 1783, in Annonay by the brothers Montgolfier, King Louis XVI, ordered the brothers to bring the balloon to Paris, and launch it in front of the palace of Versailles

Etienne went up to Paris with the balloon, and stayed with Jean-Baptiste Reveillon who had a wallpaper factory and was a customer of the Montgolfier’s paper mill in Annonay.

Etienne, to save money had made a balloon where the taffeta was sandwiched between two layers of paper but very plain.

Reveillon said he really ought to have something fancier as he was going to fly it in front of royalty and set his workers on to glue swathes of ribbons and paint it with the royal coat of arms.

On 11th September, Etienne lit the fire and it went perfectly and inflated very fast and lifted the 8 men holding it down, off the ground, others luckily jumped on the ropes to keep it down. It was left over the scaffolding that night ready for the commissioners in the morning but it started to rain.

Next morning the envelope was a bit soggy, but he managed to inflate but as it started to really pour with rain, Reveillon said to cut it free, but Etienne said no and pulled it down. The result was many of the panels were burned.

The rain then got worse and all the swagging and decorations washed off. So they had to build a new balloon from scratch for Versailles on 19th September. They abandoned paper and used taffeta coated with varnish. 4 frantic days and nights of work and they did it. A balloon  had to be capable of lifting the chosen ‘non-humans’, a sheep, a cockerel and a duck as instructed by the King.

Etienne and Reveillon’s workers took the balloon to Versailles and it was raised on a scaffold. The King came down and spent time examining it before going back to his balcony to watch.

Thousands of people watched as the balloon lurched up into the sky. It only flew for about 15 minutes. It landed softly enough. The only casualty seemed to have been the duck as the sheep had kicked it and broke its leg. The King watched the whole thing through field glasses and when Etienne went up to join him, he was able to point out how far the balloon had got.

I did a lot of research trying to ascertain what breeds were used by looking at old prints. The sheep was probably a Berichon, the only breed with no horns, and it was very docile. The Berichon du Cher was established in the Berry region of France. The original breed was crossed with a Merino in the mid-1780’s.

The cockerel we think is a Crève-coeur.  The Crève-coeur chicken is the oldest of the standard-bred fowls of France. The breed gets its name from Crève-Coeur en Ange, a small town in Normandy, France. The breed’s name translates as “broken heart. Little is known of the breed’s origins other than they were developed in Normandy and existed there for a very long time. They did not come to England because they did not like the cold, but were kept in cities in France for their meat.

It is possible that the duck was a Challans duck. The Challans Duck originated in Challans, France, from a cross between Rouen Clair and Colvert ducks in the mid 1600s. Prized by restaurants for their meat, the ducks are raised in the Vendée area of France. They are allowed to roam along the canals, where rush nests are built for them.  They forage for themselves free-range during this time, eating bugs, snails, tadpoles, etc. When they are 8 weeks old, they are gathered into pens for fattening for market.

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