Sending Humans Aloft

Posted on Mon, January 9, 2017

Not to be upstaged by the balloonist Jacques Alexandre César Charles, who launched the first hydrogen balloon in on August 1783, the brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster aloft in a wicker cage dangling beneath a hot air balloon. The flight took place on September 19, 1783, before an enormous crowd, including the Royal family, gathered in front of the royal Palace of Versailles. Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have been driven away from the launch site by the stench and smoke created by wet straw and damp organic material which the Montgolfiers burned to inflate their balloon.

Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (1754 – 1785), employed as the keeper of a cabinet of philosophical instruments for a wealthy patron, is reputed to have been the first person to reach the Versailles balloon when it landed. He then launched a successful campaign for the honor of being the first human being to make a free flight. On November 21, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers launched de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes on the first free flight from the Chateau de la Muette, Paris. Like earlier ballooning events, these were well documented in prints, art, and household objects. 

  • Etching of balloon launching in front of Palace.

    A large crowd of spectators gathered in front of the Palace of Versailles to watch the takeoff of Montgolfier balloon carrying a sheep, duck, and rooster in this etching. French, 1783

  • Lid of snuff box and interior.

    Circular wood snuff box with scene of the Montgolfier flight of September 19, 1783 from Versailles. The scene is painted on an unknown material, under glass, and is framed with a copper alloy in a twisted pattern. The interior of the box is lined in tortoise shell.

  • Black and white etching shows balloon launching.

    The first illustration of a balloon published in England shows the ascent of the animals. The inaccurate portrayal suggests that the artist had never seen a balloon and was working from written descriptions. Etching from publication, English, 1784

  • Balloon lands, a sheep gets out of the basket.

    The English engraver imagines the scene of the balloon landing. Etching form publication, English, 1784

  • Lid of snuff box with ballooning scene.

    Round, dark wood snuff box. The wood is possibly mahogany.  Lid is inset with a ballooning scene painted on ivory that is in a copper alloy frame and under glass. The scene represents the Montgolfier animal ascent from Versailles on September 19, 1783. The interior is lined in tortoise shell. Possibly French, 18th century

  • Portrait in oval frame.

    Lithograph portrait of Francis Pilatre de Rozier with a blow-pipe. Engraving, French, 18th century

  • Colorful etching of balloon launching, flanked by crowds and trees.

    Etching of the launch of the Montgolfier balloon on November 21, 1783. Hand-colored etching, French, 1783

  • Colorful etching of a balloon launch. Two large poles hold the balloon in place.

    Another view of the first free flight.

  • Landscape with balloon in distance.

    The Montgolfier balloon, carrying the first aerial travelers Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, the Marquis d’Arlandes, as seen from Benjamin Franklin’s rented home, the Hotel de Valentinois. Franklin was at the launch site, but he had given up his own bedroom to John Jay’s wife Sarah, who had given birth to daughter Ann just eight days before. This is the view of the first balloon to carry human beings in free flight that Sarah Jay would have had. Other Americans in Paris to negotiate the treaty to end the American Revolution were also fascinated witnesses, including the members of the Adams family. Hand-colored etching, French, 1783

  • Small scene of balloon painted and framed.

    Scene of a Montgolfier hot air balloon decorated in the manner of the balloon flown from the Chateau de la Muette on November 21, 1783, aloft over water with observers watching from the ground. Water color, French, 18th century

  • Balloon painted on a plate with the top of a tree and house below it.

    A ceramic plate decorated with the image of November 21, 1983 balloon.

Continuing his ongoing competition with the Montgolfier brothers, Jacques Alexandre César Charles, who launched the first gas balloon, made his own attempt at free flight. On December 1, 1783, J. A. C. Charles and companion M. N. Robert made the first free flight in a gas balloon, from the Tuileries, Paris. Two hours after take-off, Charles and Robert landed safely in the village of Nesles-la-Vallée, 35 kilometers (21 miles) northwest of Paris. Upon their safe landing, Charles had Robert exit the balloon so that he could reascend alone and become the first man to make a solo free flight. 

  • Balloon floats above trees. Below is a small crowd.

    A crowd of spectators watch as Charles and Robert’s balloon ascends from the garden of the Tuileries. Hand-colored etching, French, 1784

  • Snuff box opened with lid propped up on the bottom of the box.

    Circular wood snuff box, painting on lid. Scene of J.A.C. Charles and M.N. Robert ascending from the Tuileries on December 1, 1783, with Tuileries palace and crowd included.

  • Fan with ballooning scene painted on it.

    A ladies fan decorated with an image of the Charles and Robert balloon of December 1, 1783.

  • Black and white etching of a crowd helping to pull down a balloon.

    Two hours after take-off, Charles and Robert landed safely in the village of Nesles-la-Vallée, 35 kilometers (21 miles) Northwest of Paris. French, 18th century

  • Painting on ivory depicts a balloon on the ground, a man exits the basket, the second man stays in the basket.

    Miniature framed painting on ivory. Image shows the landing of Charles and Robert, at Neles-la-Vallee December 1, 1784. Robert is leaving the basket so that Charles can reascend alone, the first man to make a solo free flight.