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HistoryVersailles through the centuries

The first aerostatic flight

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19 September 1783

In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers conducted an experiment at Versailles: the first aerostatic flight in history. Man’s age-old dream of soaring through the air finally came true!

19 September 1783 is a key date in the history of humanity. Man had wanted to fly since Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. The Age of Enlightenment saw that dream come true at last: in 1782 Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, who were born in Ardéche, started a series of experiments using fabrics inflated by hot air from a fire of wool and wet straw. The demonstration drew notice from the Royal Academy of Sciences, which asked them to repeat the experiment in Paris.

In 1783 Jacques-Etienne made his first conclusive test with a captive balloon, which he repeated a week before the demonstration in front of the king at Versailles. The balloon was torn and had to be quickly mended. It was made of cotton glued with paper on both sides and measured 18.47 metres high and 13.28 metres wide and weighed 400 kg. It was called Le Reveillon, the name of his friend Jean-Baptiste Reveillon, director of the royal wallpaper factory, which had made a décor with an azure blue ground featuring the king’s monogram – two entwined L’s – and various ornamental motifs, all of them gilded.

The demonstration took place in the château’s crowded forecourt with Louis XVI and the royal family in attendance. When a canon boomed at one o’clock, a sheep, a duck and a rooster were put into a round wicker basket hanging from the balloon by a rope. Eleven minutes later the cannon boomed again, signalling that the balloon was ready to take off. It rose 500 metres up into the air to the astounded audience’s cheers. Damaged by a tear, it slowly descended eight minutes later after travelling 3.5 kilometres, landing at the carrefour Maréchal in the bois de Vaucresson.

Pilâtre de Rozier, a physicist and future aeronaut, gathered the animals. They were alive. The experiment was a success, clearing the way to the first manned flight. Louis XVI pensioned off the animals at the Versailles menagerie as a reward for their service. On 21 November the Montgolfier brothers repeated the experiment, this time with Pilâtre de Rozier aboard, before the dauphin at the Château de La Muette, turning a page in the history of humanity.