21 November 1783: first human balloon flight!
Flying has always been a real obsession for the Man. Since Icarus, long before Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Man wanted to soar through the air. It takes until 21 November 1783 to achieve this aim. The ascent was to take place on November 20th, but the wind and rain postponed the experience to the following day.
That morning, at the castle of La Muette, near Paris, in front of the members of the Academy of Sciences, a page in the history of humanity was written. Pilâtre de Rozier, professor of physics and chemistry, and his companion in adventure, the Marquis François d’Arlandes, take off in a hot-air balloon and rise up to 960 metres. They became the first men to free themselves from the laws of gravity. To fly, they feed a boiler located under the basket with straw and wood. The 2,400m3 balloon (a silk envelope 20 metres high and 16 metres wide) has been manufactured by Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier. The balloon and its basket weigh approximately 1700 pounds (850 kg), more than double the weight of our modern balloons.
Flying is not an easy thing to do, far from it. In a first test run, it is decided to have the machine take off to study the exact weights it can carry and see if everything is properly set up for the important experiment that is to follow.
Held on ropes and pushed by the wind, the balloon does not fly vertically. It swings out onto one of the garden paths, suffers several tears, one of which is more than six feet long (almost 2 meters), and falls to the ground. The balloon is brought back to the stage and repaired in less than two hours.
With the weather becoming clement again, the balloon takes off at 1:54 pm. Thunders of applause greeted the performance. The fire is fed by the Marquis d’Arlandes, guided by Pilâtre who broke his pitchfork. A light wind pushes the balloon.
Here are some extracts from the report established from the first flight.
Upstairs, Pilâtre does not spare his pain, pestering against his companion who has not yet got his head out of the gallery. For some time now, he has been shouting at him to throw straw on the fire. But without reply.
« Come on, Sir, we are too high to be afraid, so take your courage and your pitchfork in your hands, we’re going down« , Pilâtre claims once again.
The Marquis, all dressed in white, faces him without seeing him. He comes to his senses and answers to Pilâtre that he is entirely to his attention. Nevertheless, he is dying of fear.
After several blows of pitchforks and several altercations, the two men fly over the Seine, Conflans, Poissy, Saint-Germain, Saint-Denis, then Sèvres! Over the Military School and the Invalides, a jolt is felt. Arlandes, panicked, says it is necessary to go down.
« Why do you want us to go down« , Pilâtre retorts.
The man takes his sponge and easily extinguishes the fire coming out of a few holes. The main ropes hold well. That two or three lines did not resist, it is not a great pity.
Finally, they arrive at the towers of Saint-Sulpice, when a current makes them leave the direction and carry them to the south. After 26 minutes of intensive flight and ten kilometres further on, their balloon lands peacefully on the Butte-aux-Cailles. Once the balloon sheltered, Pilâtre and the Marquis d’Arlandes embrace and congratulate each other.
« We managed to fly. Man can fly over the roofs. The air is breathable. We are the first to see Icarus’ dream come true. Flying, flying like birds! Are you aware of the event we have just experienced?”
The report of their achievement is written for the Academy of Sciences by a certain… Benjamin Franklin. Let’s recall the words of this ambassador of the United States in France (who had discovered the lightning conductor a few years earlier). When asked by a member of the audience who wonders what use this invention will serve, Benjamin Franklin answers « What is the use of the child who has just been born?« .