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…

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