We awoke this morning to a strange, intermittent puffing noise like a dragon breathing fire. As I emerged from the depths I thought it might be an ailing combine harvester. Then I placed the sound: ‘It’s a hot air balloon!’ I exclaimed. We both leapt out of bed and wedged ourselves in the window to catch a glimpse.
For a while, all we heard was the puffing sound. Then the balloon emerged above the summer greenery, almost in slow motion. After a few minutes it drifted out of sight, leaving only a faint gasping in its wake. I wouldn’t have been quick enough to get a photo of it and it was too far away, anyway, so the stock one below will have to do.
I have always loved hot air balloons, although I have never been in one: the symmetrical beauty of the enormous balloon; their stately, effortless glide through the air; their silence, apart from the occasional jet from the burner. We don’t often see them here, maybe once every summer. A few years ago, several passed overhead at once, presumably part of a balloonists’ convention.
Hot air balloons are a French invention, named montgolfières after their inventors, the Montgolfier brothers. Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier were the 12th and 15th children of a family of 15 in Vidalon, Ardèche. They both worked in the family paper factory. Joseph was the visionary while Étienne was the methodical scientist.
The story – probably apocryphal – goes that in 1782 during a sales trip to Avignon, Joseph placed his shirt to warm in the chimney of the house where he was staying. The hot air made the shirt balloon upwards. He then experimented with other materials, including a piece of taffeta, which the hot air made rise up to the ceiling.
The two brothers designed a balloon made of sackcloth reinforced with paper. On 4th June 1783 at Annonay in the Ardèche, they launched a balloon inflated with hot air from a fire of straw and wool, which rose 1,000 metres into the air. In Paris, two other scientists launched a balloon inflated with hydrogen in August 1783. The balloon came to land 25 km away, where frightened peasants attacked it with stones and pitchforks. You can understand their reaction – it was completely beyond their comprehension and must have seemed like the work of the Devil.
Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first successful human flight in history on 21st November 1783. For a while, balloon-fever gripped France and people carried out ever more daring exploits, such as crossing the Channel in one. Eventually, though, the limitations of the montgolfière came to the fore – it couldn’t be steered and was at the mercy of the prevailing wind. Nonetheless, it had its uses as a weather station or for observing enemy movements, safely tethered to the ground. Nowadays, the montgolfière has few practical uses, but it continues to captivate the imagination.
Every year during the first weekend in June, Annonay holds a fête commemorating the first montgolfière flight and the brothers Montgolfier.
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