Boys Who Dream of Flying
Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier and Manned Balloon Flight
At a time when most of the world believed human flight was impossible, one boy thought differently.
When Joseph Montgolfier gazed out the window at school, his teachers told him to stop dreaming. Why couldn’t he pay attention like his brother Étienne? But Joseph was paying attention—to a bird soaring in the sky. Joseph was wondering if he could fly too.
Born in 1740 in Annonay, France, Joseph had fifteen brothers and sisters. He was best friends with only one of them—his youngest brother, Étienne. Étienne spoke eloquently, dressed elegantly, and had a good head for business. Joseph was the exact opposite. But the brothers shared a love of science.
One cold November day in 1782, Joseph watched cinders dance in the fireplace. They floated up the chimney. Joseph wondered if soldiers could be lifted into the air and transported to a battlefield using the same force that lifted the cinders.
Grabbing sticks and string, Joseph built a small A-frame. He covered it with thin fabric. Then he twisted papers, lit them on fire, and pushed the tiny torches under the little tent.
Whoosh! Up it floated, until it bumped into the ceiling!
Joseph raced to show his brother the floating tent.
Together, Joseph and Étienne built a larger model of the experiment: a big ball made of paper and covered with silk.
In a meadow, they secured the balloon with ropes. They lit a fire under it.
Whoosh! The ropes broke. The balloon shot up. It sailed over the trees. Joseph and Étienne couldn’t wait to build an even bigger balloon.
They made calculations, drew diagrams, and gathered supplies. Fabric filled every room as they measured and cut. Thread littered the hallways as they sewed. Two thousand buttons sparkled and shone as friends and family fastened them with needle and thread to connect the segments of the balloon.
Finally, the balloon was ready. This time, Joseph and Étienne built a bonfire in the center of town.
Joseph believed that a mysterious gas in the smoke, which he called Montgolfier gas, lifted the balloon. He thought that if the smoke was dark, thick, and smelly, the balloon would go higher, so he added damp straw and shredded wool to the flames. He didn’t realize that the balloon rose because the heated molecules of air in the balloon spread out and were less dense and lighter than the cooler air outside the balloon. Molécules, or “minute particles” in French, were discussed by Daniel Bernoulli in Hydrodynamica, published in 1738. Bernoulli said that gases consist of great numbers of molecules moving in all directions and heat is simply the energy created by their motion.
“Lachez tout!” Étienne shouted. “Let go!”
Whoosh! The balloon shot up. It floated across a field. The brothers chased after it. The townspeople chased after the brothers. And by the time they found the balloon more than a mile away, Joseph and Étienne were already planning their next demonstration.
Not every launch was successful. Some of the balloons burned up. Many failed to lift off because of bad weather conditions. Still, the Montgolfier brothers never stopped trying.
Word spread to King Louis XVI. He summoned the brothers. But Joseph did not like speaking in front of people and would not go. Though Étienne didn’t know if he could make the balloon fly without Joseph, he knew he had to try.
On a sunny September day in 1783, in front of the palace at Versailles, Étienne built a fire, adding old boots and rotten meat to it. The smoke was thicker, darker, and smellier than ever. The king watched from his balcony as into a woven wicker cage stepped . . .
Building huge balloons costs a lot of money. Fortunately, the Montgolfiers’ father owned a successful paper factory, and he promised to fund their experiments—on the condition that they promise never to go up in one of their balloons if it was untethered.
. . . a duck, a rooster, and a sheep.
Whoosh! Wide-eyed, the crowd watched as the menagerie ascended into the sky, over the palace spires, and out of sight.
Members of the Academy of Science recovered the balloon. The animals were unharmed. The king was impressed. But he had a new challenge for the brothers: Could they build a balloon that would carry a person into the air?
Étienne told the king they could build a balloon that would carry two!
The king originally wanted to send condemned criminals up in the balloon in case of mishap. But Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a science teacher, and Marquis François d’Arlandes, a soldier, appealed to the king. They felt that the honor of being the first person to soar into the air should not go to someone who had broken the law. The king agreed.
Étienne and Joseph worked day and night. It wasn’t long before the new balloon was bigger than a house.
On November 21, 1783, in Paris, a blazing fire roared in an iron furnace. Two brave men stepped into a basket beneath an enormous tent of fabric.
The balloon tugged at the ropes.
Fear tugged at Étienne’s heart.
What if it rained? What if there was too much wind?
What if the aeronauts got hurt?
Étienne could wait no longer.
He cut the ropes!
Whoosh! The balloon rose.
The crowd cheered. The aeronauts tipped their hats. The king waved a royal salute. Étienne thought of Joseph back home and smiled. They had done it!
For the next two hundred years, scientists and inventors developed aircraft that flew higher and higher, faster and faster, until finally, on July 20, 1969, men walked on the moon. And it all started with Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier, two brothers, as different as could be, who worked together to take the first step in that starry direction.
Benjamin Franklin, who happened to be in France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris between the United States and England after the American Revolution, watched that first manned hot-air balloon flight. He wrote in his journal, “We observed it lift off in the most majestic manner. When it reached around 250 feet in altitude, the intrepid voyagers lowered their hats to salute the spectators. We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration.”