First Manned Balloon Flight

On November 21, 1783, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes ascended from the Château de la Muette in a hot-air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers. Their journey over Paris lasted for twenty-six minutes and marked the beginning of piloted lighter-than-air flight in Europe.

Summary of Event

On November 21, 1783, the people of Paris cheered as they watched the slow passage of the hot-air balloon created by Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. With the technology of hot-air ballooning nearly perfected, the Montgolfiers had been testing their invention since the preceding June, first with empty tethered flights and then with farm animals aboard. On November 21, they attempted the first piloted free flight, carrying François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes. Departing from the garden of the Château de la Muette in the northwest of Paris, the balloon sailed through the air for twenty-six minutes before landing safely. [kw]First Manned Balloon Flight (Nov. 21, 1783)
[kw]Flight, First Manned Balloon (Nov. 21, 1783)
[kw]Balloon Flight, First Manned (Nov. 21, 1783)
[kw]Manned Balloon Flight, First (Nov. 21, 1783)
Balloon flight
[g]France;Nov. 21, 1783: First Manned Balloon Flight[2520]
[c]Inventions;Nov. 21, 1783: First Manned Balloon Flight[2520]
[c]Science and technology;Nov. 21, 1783: First Manned Balloon Flight[2520]
[c]Transportation;Nov. 21, 1783: First Manned Balloon Flight[2520]
Montgolfier, Joseph-Michel
Montgolfier, Jacques-Étienne
Pilâtre de Rozier, Jean-François
Arlandes, marquis d’
Louis XVI

Joseph-Michel Mongolfier was born in Vidalon-les-Annonay in Ardêche in 1740. He was the twelfth child of a family of sixteen children, of which only five survived childhood. He was five years older than his brother Jacques-Étienne. Their father, Pierre Montgolfier, owned a very successful paper factory in Dauphiné, a region near the Alps. Jacques-Étienne was a serious and disciplined student who excelled in mathematics and studied architecture with the famous French architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot. Joseph-Michel, on the other hand, was an indifferent student. Sent to a Jesuit college in Toumon to study for the priesthood, he showed little interest in theology or Latin, soon leaving his studies and migrating to Paris. There, he met and was fascinated by many of the great scientists and mechanics of his day, including Benjamin Franklin, the naturalist Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and Jacques Vaucanson, who was engaged in creating automatons.

Jacques-Étienne was given charge of the family business in 1772, where he industriously began attempting to perfect the papermaking process. Joseph-Michel likewise became the manager of a paper factory in Voiron, Dauphiné, but lacked his brother’s commitment to the profession and his business sense. Though he was a born inventor, gifted in mechanics and the sciences, he was also an absent-minded romantic and dreamer who had been known to walk home from a tavern, forgetting that he had come on his horse.

Two individuals in a balloon flying above Paris and its environs, staying aloft for twenty-six minutes to mark the first piloted balloon flight.

(Harper & Brothers)

Though their personalities were so different, the brothers got on well together, forming an alliance between dreamer and diligent mechanic that made them an ideal team. Having read a physics treatise on the laws of gases, they began experimenting with lighter-than-air flight in 1782, designing and building small silk or paper balloons they filled with hot air. Modest successes prompted them to continue their work. On June 5, 1783, the brothers’ latest hot-air balloon rose to about 2,000 meters, landing in a vineyard 2.5 kilometers from Annonay.

The Montgolfiers were not, however, the only ones experimenting with flight. Jacques-Alexandre Charles and Marie-Noel Robert developed a hydrogen balloon that, on August 27, 1783, rose from the Champ de Mars, an open grassy area in the center of Paris, and came to rest in Gonesse, 25 kilometers away. Though Charles and Robert’s balloon was attacked and destroyed by peasants, frightened by its sudden and mysterious descent from the heavens, it had beaten the Montgolfiers’ record.

Fostering the competition that led to scientific advances and engineering breakthroughs, the French Academy of Sciences Academy of Sciences, France encouraged the Montgolfiers to continue their experiments. A presentation of their work before King Louis XVI Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette Marie-Antoinette at Versailles was arranged on September 19, 1783. As the king watched, the brothers placed a sheep, a rooster, and a duck in the basket suspended from their balloon. When the craft sailed into the air, landing eight minutes later and 3 kilometers away in the woods of Vaucresson, the king was delighted. Soon thereafter, he ennobled Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, who were henceforth called de Montgolfier.

A month later, on October 15, the brothers were approached by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier as they prepared for a flight in a park in Paris. Pilâtre de Rozier, intrigued by the preparations that he had observed, offered to take the place of the domestic animals, becoming the first person to rise 20 meters in a tethered balloon. On October 20, he reached 60 meters. Discovering that sustained flight was almost impossible because of the difficulty of maintaining the fire that provided the hot air, Pilâtre de Rozier suggested that a second passenger would be useful. A few hours later, Giroud de Villette accompanied Pilâtre de Rozier on a flight that reached 80 meters and lasted for ten minutes. Though the problems of sustaining flight had been solved, if not the considerable danger involved in maintaining an open fire so near to a canopy composed of silk and paper, still, free flight had not been achieved.

The Montgolfiers announced that the first free flight of a piloted balloon would take place on November 21, 1783. As the population of Paris awaited the spectacle, at 1:54 p.m. Pilâtre de Rozier, accompanied by an infantry officer, the Marquis d’Arlande, rose from the field surrounding the Château de la Muette at the northwest boundary of Paris. A strong wind blowing from the northwest pushed the balloon over the roofs of Paris, as both aeronauts worked diligently to feed their fire with straw. When they reached the Seine River, the air in contact with the water was colder, and the balloon dropped steadily toward the ground. Feeding more straw into the furnace brought the balloon back up to 1,000 meters, however. The flames from the larger fire ignited the balloon envelope in scattered areas, threatening disaster until Pilâtre de Rozier extinguished the flames with a wet sponge. After flying near Notre Dame Cathedral and the windmills of Montmartre, the balloon landed safely at 2:20 p.m. on the Butte-des-Cailles, near the present-day Place d’Italie. For twenty-six minutes, and for the first time in history, two people had traveled freely in the air.

Soon after the Montgolfiers’ success, on December 1, 1783, Charles and Robert flew for fifty-six minutes in their hydrogen balloon and reached an altitude of 3,500 meters carrying meteorological instruments—a thermometer and a barometer. Joseph-Michel de Montgolfier finally flew in his own balloon on January 19, 1784. The dangers that the early balloonists faced became clear when, on June 15, 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier decided to cross the English Channel with Pierre Ange Romain. Soon after taking off, their balloon caught fire and both aeronauts were killed.


The key to the success of the Montgolfiers resided in the complementarity of their characters. The empirical method and imagination of Joseph-Michel was tempered by the order, method, and conservatism of Jacques-Étienne. Their discoveries were integral to the explosion of scientific theory and application resulting from the Enlightenment’s faith in the power of rational thought. Like Benjamin Franklin in the United States, they were a convincing demonstration of the ability of intelligent people to make an understanding of the nature of the physical world useful.

The hot-air balloons that they pioneered provided the technological basis for most lighter-than-air flight in the nineteenth century. Used for scientific observation, hot-air balloons also were adapted to military use, primarily for observation and communication. They were successfully employed during the U.S. Civil War, in the 1870-1871 Siege of Paris during the French-Prussian War, and during World War I.

Charles and Roberts’s hydrogen balloon was the predecessor of the dirigibles and blimps of the early twentieth century. Though hot-air ballooning has become to a great extent merely the hobby of a community of dedicated enthusiasts, it has led to more efficient and dependable technologies that are still employed whenever modern meteorological balloons are launched to study atmospheric pressure, humidity, and the ozone layer.

Further Reading

  • Christopher, John. Riding the Jetstream: The Story of Ballooning, from Montgolfier to Breitling. London: John Murray, 2001. The author examines the invention of the first balloon and its evolution until the present.
  • Gillipsie, Charles Coulston. The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation, 1783-1784: With a Word on the Importance of Ballooning for the Science of Heat and the Art of Building Railroads. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. A good introduction to the methods by which Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier invented their balloon, and the science that made it work.
  • Rosenband, Leonard N. Papermaking in Eighteenth-Century France: Management, Labor, and Revolution at the Montgolfier Mill, 1761-1805. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. An excellent description of the Montgolfier family papermaking business. Its success gave the Montgolfier brothers the means to develop their balloon.

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