Sunday, February 08, 2009

Great Moments in Aviation, Part IV

Taking up the thread again in Western Europe, the story takes an unexpected turn when Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier start fiddling around with the odd properties of hot gases.

I say "unexpected" because, although people had been gazing at birds and wondering for as long as humanity had existed, no records exist of anyone imagining the lifting power of hot air until November of 1782, while contemplating an assault on the British-held fortress at Gibraltar.

Gibraltar: it had been ceded to Britain by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, and it commanded the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. Needless to say, this was a major thorn in France's side. Assault from the seaward side is simply suicide. There are no beaches. The only harbor is well-covered by artillery from above. And the only approach from the landward side is narrow, and just as easily covered. As badly as the French wanted Gibraltar, well, they could want in one hand and spit in the other. Guess which one fills up first?

Which drove Joseph to wonder: what if there was somehow a way to approach from above? Say, if you could harness the lifting power of the smoke that headed up from a fire? There was no way for artillery to fire high enough to cover that approach. What a fine thing that would be ...

This might have gone the way of most idle thoughts, if the Montgolfier family hadn't been experts in cloth, paper, and wood. Joseph had exactly the right skills and materials to build a small proof-of-concept device that, when held over a fire, promptly sailed up to the ceiling. Once he showed his brother, well, there was nothing for it but to build a full-scale version that could carry the both of them.

About a month later, on December 14th, 1782, the brothers took their first balloon aloft. They lost control, not expecting the lifting force to be so great, and sailed one and a quarter miles across the countryside before making a safe landing. Larger balloons followed, as well as public demonstrations, until in September of the next year they made a demonstration at Versailles for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Their fame, and fortune, had been assured.

Hot-air ballooning would become a dead end, though, since hot-air balloons are inherently limited by the cooling of the trapped gas. Hydrogen balloons were developed in parallel, and in competition with, hot-air balloons. Hydrogen balloons would come to dominate ballooning for the next 180 years, until helium became available in quantity.

Nevertheless, hardly anyone remembers the inventor of the hydrogen balloon. The Montgolfier brothers were first past the post, and are therefore enshrined as history's first balloonists.

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