• Email
  • Print

Very Heaven

One day last summer, the Place de la Concorde was a riot of color as a cloud of hot-air balloons rose majestically and blew eastward across Paris to mark the bicentenary of the achievement of the Montgolfier brothers: the first men to construct a hot-air balloon, in whose invention the first manned flight was made. The balloons were so beautiful as they drifted over Paris that they appeared more a piece of living art than a scientific experiment. Balloons have always been a part of the theater of science from their invention, indeed more theater than science.

The imagination of men and governments in the eighteenth century was deeply stimulated by novelty whether it was wallpaper from China, a new flowering plant from Japan, or the invention of porcelain or the new technology of making iron from coke. The first iron bridge across the river Severn in England drew crowds of visitors in the 1770s. They walked back and forth across it until they were tired, bought prints of it to hang on their walls, and then set off for the factory of Messrs. Boulton and Watts at Birmingham to watch them making steam engines—the technological marvel of the age.

Elsewhere country gentlemen were doing their best to control nature by specialized breeding of cattle, flowers, and vegetables which, over the second half of the century, changed almost beyond recognition (the British pig, for example, instead of being small and hairy became large, fat, and seemingly hairless). Others, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, dabbled in chemistry; indeed it was one of these gentlemen, Henry Cavendish, who discovered hydrogen, which gave impetus to the discovery of the balloon. For he encouraged the research into the gases making up the air that finally led some years later to the discovery of oxygen: partly by Joseph Priestley in England, who got it slightly wrong, and Lavoisier in France, who got it right.

The French were in a similar fever for technological change, fearful that they might lag behind Britain or the Netherlands where technological skills seemed to be making striking progress. Indeed the French government, both central and provincial, actively stimulated research by making grants to what appeared likely to be successful inventions with military or commercial potential.

The Montgolfiers, the subject of this interesting book by Charles Gillispie, who has unearthed their archives and made good use of them, were very typical of their age. They were industrialists, aware of the potential of technological invention, avid assimilators of whatever scientific knowledge was in circulation and not unadept, at least in Étienne’s case, at mathematical theory and calculation. His brother, Joseph, had an inventive imagination and great skill in giving physical reality to his ideas. Indeed, the combination of Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier was an ideal one.

However, they were not alone in the desire to conquer the air. J.A.C. Charles, possibly an illegitimate son of the Marquis des Castries, was a fashionable scientific lecturer in Paris and he often demonstrated the properties of hydrogen, by now well known to scientists, showing that it was both lighter than air and highly inflammable, by making hydrogen soap bubbles which floated to the ceiling to excite his audience. Occasionally he ignited them as they floated upward. It required little scientific imagination to conceive of a hydrogen balloon, but there were great obstacles to achieving it since hydrogen had only been made in very small amounts. Making enough, getting it into a bag that would hold it, apart from the dangers of explosion, were major problems. Financing the experiment was less difficult, for a public excited by scientific marvels responded generously when a public subscription was opened in 1783. The entire process of the construction of a hydrogen balloon, or charlière as it came to be called, is well documented; for it was from the start in the hands of professional and semiprofessional scientists in Paris, strongly supported by Lavoisier.

The origins of the idea of the Montgolfier hot-air balloon are obscure. Certainly throughout the industrial regions of France some experimentation was taking place not only with balloons but also with parachutes. Just how Joseph Montgolfier got his idea of raising a balloon by heating the air at its neck remains unclear. The reason for this working method is simple: the fire consumes some of the oxygen, the heat expands the remainder in the confined space, which makes the balloon lighter and so enables it to rise and, indeed, to lift considerable weight. But the scientific reason for the balloon rising was not precisely known. The nature of heat had not been strictly defined—to Joseph Montgolfier applying heat was as much a chemical as a physical process. All that he truly knew was that it worked. From what a small balloon could lift, his brother Étienne could work out the mathematical problems presented by the size needed for heavier loads, and the surface area required.

For a generation or so the Montgolfiers had made paper at Annonay, a very small industrial town in the Vivarais at the edge of the Massif Central, which provided the sharp fall in the streams that fed their mills. Lyons and its thriving industry as well as its splendid river communications were but a short distance from Annonay, a town far closer to the centers of industry and of scientific and technological discussion than its place on the map might imply.

The first experiment by Joseph took place in November 1782. According to a family legend the direct stimulus to his thoughts was the siege of Gibraltar which was then taking place. Joseph wondered how supplies could be got there by air. At the time, having failed in business in Lyons, he had enrolled himself in the faculty of law at Avignon University and was living there. No doubt near-bankruptcy also concentrated his thoughts. He constructed a small balloon, burned straw at its neck, and watched it rise to the ceiling of his room. He rushed back to Annonay and fired his brother Étienne’s imagination. Joseph repeated his experiments at home, exciting everyone in his family, except for his father. The brothers set about making a larger balloon that would rise before the astonished eyes of the deputies of the Estates of Vivarais who were to meet in Annonay.

The deputies had the power to make grants to encourage experiments, which certainly spurred the Montgolfiers. The balloon was made of taffeta, and lined with fine paper in order to stop the hot air escaping: heat came from a simple brazier filled with wool and straw. The panels of the balloon were buttoned together like a waistcoat; the whole was encased in a fishnet of cords to keep it in shape and to strengthen it. Once the fire was burning and the balloon began to strain at its anchoring ropes, it was released before the astonished assembly. It rose to 3,000 feet and traveled for a mile and a half.

The brothers so impressed the deputies that they granted them a subsidy for further experiments. Within days Étienne was on his way to Paris. The Montgolfiers naturally wanted to register their invention but Étienne was also after patronage and money, money not only to make more balloons but also to develop the family paper mill. Time certainly was important, for the Montgolfiers had now heard that Charles was making an attempt to build a hydrogen balloon. The Montgolfiers themselves had played with the idea of hydrogen but turned it down on the grounds of expense and the difficulty of making enough hydrogen to fill the balloon. In Paris both money and hydrogen were more easily obtainable and on August 27, 1783, Charles’s balloon rose from the Champ de Mars to about 5,000 feet. It flew for twenty kilometers and burst into flame.

The Montgolfiers established themselves in Paris to construct a new balloon to show to the king and court at Versailles, this time with the help of Réveillon, the greatest wallpaper maker in Europe. So when the balloon rose in September 1783 at Versailles before the king and queen, the entire court, and thousands of spectators, it was an object of singular beauty—the surface was pink with two bands of gold swags and between them were interlaced L’s for Louis, the same mark that was used for Sèvres porcelain. Pure theater, and the crowds became immensely excited. To upstage Charles, the Montgolfier balloon carried in its basket a lamb, a duck, and a cockerel, all of whom landed safely miles from Paris.

Manned flights followed in November. Every flight produced greater sophistication—paddles were used to try to give the balloon power to navigate—but these met with only limited success. Lavoisier, who preferred the hydrogen balloon, found a quicker and more effective way of making enough hydrogen to fill the balloon. Others tried cigar-shaped balloons that were primitive dirigibles. Étienne Montgolfier dreamed of their practical uses—as observation posts in war (they were actually used in the revolutionary wars at the battle of Jourdain but proved too unreliable), for moving soldiers, for commerce around France, and, of course, for travel; even regular Channel crossings were envisaged.

But the balloon failed to develop any practical use. It never became navigable. It could never with any certainty reach its target. The first Channel crossing was nearly a disaster: about halfway across, the balloon steadily lost height, and everything, including the balloonists’ clothes, was thrown overboard in the hope of lifting the balloon. A few miles short of the French coast, the gondola of the balloon was about to strike the water when they encountered a thermal that lifted them high again, and they soared over the coast and landed at Guînes. This made Blanchard, the balloonist, famous, and he and his wife decided to make ballooning their profession. Here they succeeded, for, although ballooning might not have any particular uses any more than walking on the moon was to have, it captured the public imagination and helped to create among the multitude a sense of the limitless possibilities before mankind. Ballooning became an essential part of public theater and a glorious structure rose to the skies to celebrate Napoleon’s coronation.

The Montgolfiers were made nobles, received a not inconsiderable amount of money from the delighted king, and returned to their paper making; at least Étienne did. Joseph’s insatiable curiosity and his wonderful aptitude to give practical shape to his ideas led him to further inventions, for example the hydraulic ram. Many of his ideas he passed on to his nephew, Marc Seguin, whose son (by the same name) helped to revolutionize transport in the 1830s, building France’s first railway and developing cable suspension for bridges. Indeed Seguin is the subject of the second half of Gillispie’s book.

It is difficult for us to recapture the emotion that these startling inventions created—not among the peasantry: peasants attacked and destroyed unmanned balloons as soon as they landed. Hatred of invention and new machinery—the Luddite syndrome—was common enough, but far, far more were stimulated in their imagination, and many were inspired to dabble themselves in amateur science and technology. The crowds who watched the early balloonists—Blanchard, Lunardi, or Pilatre de Rozier—never forgot their experience; it was as much a miracle of man’s ingenuity for them as Neil Armstrong’s walking on the moon was for us. Man for the first time had conquered the third element—the air. At such a time it really was a joy to be alive.

And it was such demonstrations as the Montgolfiers’, pure theater as they were, that helped to spread the acceptance of a scientific and industrial world. Unfortunately Charles Gillispie’s book is not easy to read. It keeps very closely to the Montgolfier records and, since his book is the first to explore them fully, that, at least, is pure gain. But his book lacks coherence. It often rambles from paper making to private life and back again to balloons with little sense of direction; at times it is very difficult to work out the exact chronology of events. Worse, the social setting in which man’s first flight took place, and its influence, entirely elude the author.

Part of that social atmosphere was the mood Wordsworth recalled so vividly. “But to be young was very heaven” is rarely regarded as a statement about society in the 1780s but is taken as a statement about the timeless ebullience of youth. But to be young in the 1780s—so long as one belonged to the petty bourgeoisie or higher, and could read—was indeed very heaven. America, France, Britain were alive with hope—political, economic, social, literary, and scientific. I can hear, well amplified by dedicated Marxist historians from E.P. Thompson to Eugene Genovese, the sad cries of the London working class, wasting away in their homes in Spitalfields, or the groans of slaves torn from their children and sold. Of course, one can see easily enough the gaunt faces of children from Languedoc, stunted and hungry, feeding miserably on a dish of chestnuts, or their wretched Parisian cousins selling themselves to anyone who would buy. There was, in 1800, hideous injustice in a very cruel world; Fortuna gave little hope or pity to most of mankind. Yet the same had always been so, for millennia, let alone centuries.

But to think that this is the sum of social history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is a serious distortion, for it attempts to deny the beneficial social revolution brought about at that time by a combination of capitalist enterprise, technological inventions, scientific understanding, and a deep social confidence among the petty bourgeoisie. What was new in the late eighteenth century was not the misery, the evil, or the exploitation, but the spreading sense in America, Britain, and Europe that men could change their earthly destiny, that they could master nature as well as politics. Naive, perhaps, and doomed to terrible disappointment, but at its birth social hope was intoxicating.

  • Email
  • Print