The Hot-Air Balloon Craze

The ballooning craze burst onto the scene on June 5, 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, launched the world’s first successful hot-air balloon. There was no one on board, but the public was entranced. A new word entered the French vocabulary: montgolfier, meaning a hot-air balloon. Public interest grew even more feverish on October 15 of the same year, when Etienne Montgolfier went aloft on a tethered flight, a feat equalled the same day in the same craft by Pilatre de Rozier.

The next step came on November 21, 1783, when two men (Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis François d’Arlandes) succeeded in going aloft and descending alive after an untethered flight. The feat was both exciting and controversial. King Louis XVI had thought it too dangerous an exploit for solid citizens and had proposed that criminals be sent up first to test the technology. He was over-ruled (not for the only time in his short life).

But hot air was not the only way to go aloft. Hydrogen gas, while dangerously explosive, is also lighter than air. August 27, 1783, was the date of the first unmanned flight in a hydrogen-filled balloon, from Paris to Gonesse, a distance of 25 km (16 miles). There followed flights with animals on board.

Meanwhile, ballooning mania had spread to all manner of toys, ornaments, jewellery, and household goods and furniture, including chairs with balloons carved in their wooden backs. Balloons were even used to hold lanterns aloft at parties.

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