From as long ago as the ancient Greeks and their legend of Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, and the ancient Chinese who made kites that could take to the air, people have wanted to fly. The first known flight to carry people took place in Paris, France in 1783 in a balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers.
In 1775 Joseph Montgolfier began experimenting with parachutes. He had noticed that warm air from a fire billowed out washing that was drying above it. He built a light hollow chamber, covered with cloth and lit some paper under it. The contraption floated up to the ceiling of the room. After constructing a larger model, the brothers took it outside and, with similar success, the apparatus travelled two kilometres. They were determined to take their ideas further.
More experiments followed and in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers gave their first public demonstration of balloon flight. They refined their design, making it bigger and safer. Following the successful flight of a sheep, a duck and a rooster suspended in a basket below the balloon, the King of France (Louis XVI) allowed the brothers to try balloon flight with human passengers.
On 15 October 1783, Étienne Montgolfier became the first person to ‘fly’ in a tethered balloon, rising to 24 metres (about 4 times the height of an average house). And on 21 November, the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon made the very first passenger flight, reaching a height of 910 metres and travelling a distance of 8 kilometres above Paris. It landed safely and so marked a revolution in aviation history and science. Some ten years later, observation balloons were used for the first time during the French Revolutionary Wars, though the experimental “Aerostatic Corps” was disbanded in 1799.
Did you know..?
It was over a 100 years later – in 1903 – that the Wright brothers made the first aeroplane flight.
See the balloon brought to life in our Animated introduction to the Age of Revolution.
- Using objects, artworks and other sources to find out about the past
- Enquiry: How was transport different in the past?
- Enquiry: A transport revolution?
- Transport pairs
- Objects personified
And much more…
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.
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This object is in the collection of Science Museum