This history of modern hot air ballooning starts over the Channel in France. Here, it was on September 19, 1783 that the Montgolfier brothers first demonstrated the tethered flight of their aeronautical device to King Louise XVI in the court of Versailles, outside Paris.
The Montgolfier brothers were paper manufacturers who used their textile-making know-how to develop technical knowledge about how to make paper or fabric domes billow and rise through the heating of air.
Their initial attempts in Annony, south of Lyon, captured the attention of the Académie Royale des Sciences, which is how the pair ended up demonstrating the functioning of their balloon – gloriously emblazoned in gold and blue with the ensign of Louis XVI – to the king of France.
The balloon was nine meters in diameter and made of taffeta, varnished in alum for fireproofing, but the basket was empty for the time being.
The demonstration to the French court provoked such excitement that it was swiftly decided that manned flights ought to be explored. However, leaving the security of hard land was a daunting prospect to these early intrepid inventors. In particular, it was not clear whether a human could survive at such a high altitude. It was decided that for the sake of safety, animals would have the honour of the first flight.
On September 19, 1783, a rooster, a sheep and a duck were ushered into the basket of the balloon. The sheep was selected because its physiology is similar to that of a human, the duck was unlikely to be troubled by high altitude, whilst the rooster – as a control – was not used to high altitudes though it could fly. If they could survive, could human beings? When they descended after eight minutes unscathed, the animals were honoured by entering them into the royal menagerie.
The first man to fly in a hot air balloon was also the first man to die in one, though thankfully not on the same day. Unconvinced that the ballooning experience was survivable for humans, King Louis XVI wanted condemned criminals to take the first flight, but the scientists and teacher Jean-Francois de Pilatre de Rozier managed to have the king convinced that the honour should fall to a more noble type of man.
It was thus that on 21 November 1783, before the king, queen and members of the royal court, and US envoy Benjamin Franklin, that Rozier and his colleague François Laurent d’Arlandes boarded the Montgolfier vessel and flew for 25 minutes along a distance of 9km before landing safely, thus heralding the advent of what would become a thriving world of aeronautical experimentation and discovery.
Indeed, it was on one such daring attempt that Rozier was defeated. Two years after his successful inaugural flight, in an attempt to cross the Channel, his balloon deflated, and he and his co-pilot Pierre Romain died. King Louis XVI had a medal struck in his honour for his services to the French nation.
Ballooning continued to inspire adventurers all over the globe with ever more daring feats and technical experiments developed over the ensuing decades and into the present day. Today, it is thankfully a very safe form of transport.