The Birth of Flight: NASM Collections
The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. Enormous crowds gathered in Paris to watch one balloon after another rise above the city rooftops, carrying the first human beings into the air in the closing months of 1783. The excitement quickly spread to other European cities where the first generation of aeronauts demonstrated the wonder of flight. Everywhere the reaction was the same. In an age when men and women could fly, what other wonders might they achieve.
"Among all our circle of friends," one observer noted, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky." Single sheet prints illustrating the great events and personalities in the early history of ballooning were produced and sold across Europe. The balloon sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs.
Thanks to the generosity of several generations of donors, the National Air and Space Museum maintains one of the world's great collections of objects and images documenting and celebrating the invention and early history of the balloon. Visitors to the NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport can see several display cases filled with the riches of this collection. We are pleased to provide visitors to our web site with access to an even broader range of images and objects from this period. We invite you to share at least a small taste of the excitement experienced by those who witness the birth of the air age.
Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
Text surrounds central image of balloon aloft with two passengers; red, blue, white, and black ink on paper lined with linen.
Present at Creation:
The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning
The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.
Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.
Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.
A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.
The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.
"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?
The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."
The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.
The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."
"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."
Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.
The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.
Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."
There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?
If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.
Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.
The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .
In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.
By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.
The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.
In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.
Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.
The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.
Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.
A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.
The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.
There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.
By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.
Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.
Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum