Who Were the First to Fly? Meet the Ballooning Brothers

The first passengers in a Montgolfier balloon flight, November 1783.
Detail from collecting cards with pictures of events in ballooning history from 1783 to 1883.
Prints and Photograph Division.

A fascination with flight dates back millennia. The allure of the air is evident in the mythological story of Icarus, the designs of Leonardo da Vinci and in the long history of kite flying. The Wright brothers are world famous as the inventors of the first successful plane. What’s less well known is how other sets of siblings were key players in the early history of flight. Perhaps dealing with a lifetime of fraternal squabbles equipped them to persevere and meet the challenges of their groundbreaking experiments? Whatever the reason, aviation history boasts a remarkable number of successful and innovative brothers from its beginnings in 18th century France.

For more than a century before Orville’s and Wilbur’s first flight in 1903, hot air ballooning was the only way to explore the skies. France led the way. The first public, unmanned balloon flights in June of 1783 were the work of French brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier (two of sixteen siblings!). On September 19, 1783 , at the palace of Versailles, they launched a balloon carrying a sheep, a rooster and a duck. King Louis XVI – who watched the ascent with Queen Marie Antoinette – had refused to allow human passengers. One description of this flight tells how the duck and the sheep were unscathed, but “the rooster “appeared to have suffered some injury,” initially attributed to “the effects of the rarified atmosphere whereas it was later clearly shown to be due to the fact that it was trodden on by the sheep.”*

1783 was a year of ballooning firsts. Huge crowds gathered to see the experimental flights. On November 21, 1783, Ben Franklin watched the first men ascend in a Montgolfier balloon and wrote about the new invention. The Montgolfiers used hot air generated by on-board fires to power their open-bottomed balloons. Two contemporaries, also brothers, took a different approach. Anne-Jean and Marie-Noël Robert worked on hydrogen-powered aircraft, filling closed spheres with the gas. The first unmanned hydrogen balloon went up on August 27, 1783. The flight was a success – until the balloon was destroyed by terrified villagers when it landed several miles outside Paris. On December 1, Marie-Noël Robert and their collaborator Jacques Charles flew the first manned, hydrogen-powered balloon. Using hydrogen rather than hot air allowed for longer flights at higher altitude. In September 1784 the Roberts made a six-hour, 115-mile flight in yet another development, a balloon that was elongated rather than spherical.

In the 19th century, the Montgolfiers were succeeded by Gaston and Albert Tissandier, yet one more trailblazing duo of French brothers. The Library owns the Tissandier Collection, several hundred items documenting the early history of aeronautics. It’s a wide-ranging assortment of images, scientific documents and ballooning souvenirs, including posters, tickets, cartoons and sketches of their exploits. Both men had other skills that complemented their ballooning expertise; Gaston was a science writer and Albert was an illustrator. They helped establish ballooning as a more scientific, practical and even a patriotic pursuit, in which aeronauts took daring risks on behalf of their country. The brothers were involved in the military use of balloons during the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 71). Balloons transported people, mail and carrier pigeons out of besieged Paris. Gaston Tissandier dropped propaganda on enemy troops, and he and Albert commanded a division of the new Balloon Corps.

Albert Tissandier (left), Gaston Tissandier (right), and an unidentified man in the basket of their airship demonstrating an electric navigational system featuring a propeller. Tilly, E. A., engraver. Prints and Photographs Division.

There’s a full description of the military use of balloons in Chapters 12 and 13 of Airships Past and Present, (1908) one of many digitized books on aeronautics in the Library’s collections.

In 1875, Gaston Tissandier was the only survivor of a flight that went up to 28,000 feet. You can read his harrowing description of the journey here. The Tissandiers pushed the boundaries of air travel still further by experimenting with powered airships which could be steered instead of being at the mercy of the winds.

Otto Lilienthal was a German aviator whose work inspired the Wright brothers. By the time he was killed in a flying accident in 1896, he was famous for the gliders he built and flew. He collaborated with his brother Gustav from a young age, experimenting on wings and gliders. Gustav pursued a different career path, but in later life he returned to aviation and continued Otto’s work until his death in 1933, aged 83.
What about ballooning sisters? Surely some female fliers must have existed, even allowing for the gender-based restrictions of the 18th and 19th centuries? They certainly did – researching this piece led me to many amazing, lesser-known pioneering women aeronauts whose feats deserve their own blog post. Stay tuned!

For more on the history of aviation, take a look at these other Library resources:

*If you’re wondering what happened to the animals, they were hailed as “heroes of the air” and given a home in the royal menagerie.

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