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Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier were two of the 16 children of a prosperous family in southern France. While dutifully working in the family business, they also pursued their interest in science. One day in 1782, Joseph was watching a fire burn in his fireplace and became absorbed by the rising smoke and embers, so he enlisted his brother in a series of experiments. Fires were lit under small bags made of fabric and paper (balons), which expanded and rose to the ceiling of their house. The brothers believed they had discovered a new gas (which they humbly called “Montgolfier gas”), but of course today we know the gas was just air, which when heated becomes lighter than the surrounding air.
The brothers took their experiments outdoors, constructing progressively larger balloons with sides made of light wood and cloth tops. In December 1782, they lost control of their newest contraption. It floated to a nearby village, where the frightened locals, wondering what in the world had descended upon them, destroyed it with stones and pitchforks. Undaunted, the Montgolfiers made their first public demonstration in June 1783. Their new balloon, filled with air heated by wool and straw burnt under the opening at the bottom of the bag, was lifted roughly 3,000 feet in the air and stayed aloft about 10 minutes before drifting and landing a mile and a half away.
Three months later, the brothers traveled to Versailles and, before a huge crowd that included King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, repeated their experiment with a bigger balloon. Included on this flight were the world’s first hot-air-balloon passengers: a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The adventurous animals floated for about eight minutes, reaching a height of roughly 1,700 feet before landing safely two miles down the road.
The stage was now set for the first manned flight. King Louis XVI initially decreed that the first human passengers be criminals (whose lives were presumably less important than others). But he was persuaded to allow a young scientist to go up in a series of tethered test flights which were successful. The first untethered, manned flight took place on Nov. 21, 1783. This time the scientist was joined by an army officer, and together the two floated over Paris for 25 minutes. They landed just outside of the city and could have traveled much farther if fire had not threatened to burn the balloon fabric. To save the balloon, the scientist had to put out the fire with his coat. With no fire to keep it aloft, the balloon descended quickly to the ground.
The Montgolfier brothers made aviation history. And yet, less than two weeks after their crowning achievement, two French scientists took to the skies in an untethered hydrogen balloon, flying longer and farther than the Montgolfier flight had gone. Hydrogen balloons solved the fundamental problem with hot air balloons at the time, which was that while fire was necessary to constantly warm the air, sparks from the fire posed a big safety hazard.
To go from staring into a fire to flying two men across Paris to having your achievement quickly surpassed — all in a year — is, I suppose, a bittersweet story. But I like it because it reminds me that while the distance between dream and reality can sometimes be crossed quickly, we can never rest on our laurels. Even more importantly, we can never stop dreaming. Many years after the Montgolfiers, another famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, said it well: “We actually live, today, in our dreams of yesterday; and, living in those dreams, we dream again.”
For following their dreams and for ultimately helping all of us live lives untethered from the ground, a tip of the hat this month to les frères Montgolfier. And wherever your dreams are taking you today, thanks for flying with us. Bon voyage!
Gerard J. Arpey