By Patricia Lightfoot
Place: The west end of the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris
Time: December 1, 1783
What was happening: The first manned flight of a hydrogen-filled balloon took place 10 days after the first manned flight of a hot air balloon, or montgolfiere. As described by Charles Coulston Gillespie in The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation 1783-1784 (Princeton University Press, 1983), crowds gathered in the Jardin des Tuileries to watch the ascent of the gas balloon, which was piloted by physicist J.A.C. Charles and the younger of the brothers Robert, who had assisted Charles in developing the balloon. Among other challenges, this had required the invention of a process to extract hydrogen on an industrial scale, which was an extremely hazardous undertaking, featuring the pouring of large quantities of sulphuric acid over iron filings to generate the gas.
The two pilots sat in an ornate gondola below the balloon, which was patterned with vertical bands of yellow and ochre. “Friends had taken care to provide the conveyance with bottles of champagne and furs and blankets against the chill of different climates” (Coulston Gillespie, page 58). Once a green trial balloon had been released to mark the direction of the wind, the ground crew released the cords of the gas balloon, the pilots raised their glasses of champagne to the crowd and they ascended vertically to over 1800 feet and then were carried northwest by the wind.
Photo credit: Pat Rich