Montgolfier brothers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aviation pioneers who first accomplished successful human flight.

Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were two of sixteen children born to Pierre Montgolfier and his wife. Pierre’s success in the paper industry provided the necessary finances for Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne to obtain good educations and to conduct a variety of scientific experiments. Inspired by wood chips floating over a fire in the family fireplace, the two brothers theorized that when heated air was collected inside of a paper bag, the bag would rise. This discovery led to their invention of the first hot-air balloon in 1782.

On June 5, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers made the first public demonstration of their hot-air balloon at the marketplace in their hometown. The balloon was constructed from multiple sections of cloth and lined with paper that was coated with alum to provide a form of fireproofing. The sections were held together with approximately two thousand buttons. The fuel to heat the air inside the balloon was a mixture of straw and carded wool. Once released, the balloon stayed in the air for ten minutes, reached an altitude of about 6,560 feet, and traveled a distance of more than 1 mile.

On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent the first living creatures, a duck, a sheep, and a rooster, on a balloon flight in Versailles. Watched by King Louis XVI; his wife, Marie Antoinette; and some 130,000 spectators, the balloon stayed aloft for about 8 minutes, reached a height of 1,640 feet, and safely landed 2 miles from the point of departure. This successful exhibition made the Montgolfier brothers national figures, and a gold medal was issued in their honor.

In Paris, on November 21, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers conducted the first untethered human flight. It was manned by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a science teacher, and Marquis François-Laurent D’Arlandes. The balloon sailed over Paris for about 25 minutes and traveled approximately 7 miles from the launch site.

In later life, Joseph-Michel invented a type of parachute, a calorimeter, and a hydraulic ram and press. In 1807, he was made a knight of the Legion of Honor. Jacques-Étienne developed a process for producing a new type of paper called vellum. Both brothers were honored by the French Academy of Sciences.

  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston. The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Excellent account of the lives and accomplishments of the Montgolfier brothers.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. A Brief History of Flight: From Balloons to Mach 3 and Beyond. New York: Wiley, 2001. Overview of all the important developments in aeronautical history, including the contributions of the Montgolfier brothers.
  • Scott, Phil. The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995. In-depth account of the balloon flights of the Montgolfier brothers.


Buoyant aircraft

History of human flight

Hot-air balloons

Lighter-than-air craft

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, pictured here, and his brother JacquesÉtienne pioneered human balloon flight in the 1780’s.

(Hulton Archive)
Categories: History Content