CHAPTER II. The French Paper-maker who Invented the Balloon

In the year 1782 two young Frenchmen might have been seen one winter night sitting over their cottage fire, performing the curious experiment of filling paper bags with smoke, and letting them rise up towards the ceiling. These young men were brothers, named Stephen and Joseph Montgolfier, and their experiments resulted in the invention of the balloon.

The brothers, like all inventors, seem to have had enquiring minds. They were for ever asking the why and the wherefore of things. "Why does smoke rise?" they asked. "Is there not some strange power in the atmosphere which makes the smoke from chimneys and elsewhere rise in opposition to the force of gravity? If so, cannot we discover this power, and apply it to the service of mankind?"

We may imagine that such questions were in the minds of those two French paper-makers, just as similar questions were in the mind of James Watt when he was discovering the power of steam. But one of the most important attributes of an inventor is an infinite capacity for taking pains, together with great patience.

And so we find the two brothers employing their leisure in what to us would, be a childish pastime, the making of paper balloons. The story tells us that their room was filled with smoke, which issued from the windows as though the house were on fire. A neighbour, thinking such was the case, rushed in, but, on being assured that nothing serious was wrong, stayed to watch the tiny balloons rise a little way from the thin tray which contained the fire that made the smoke with which the bags were filled. The experiments were not altogether successful, however, for the bags rarely rose more than a foot or so from the tray. The neighbour suggested that they should fasten the thin tray on to the bottom of the bag, for it was thought that the bags would not ascend higher because the smoke became cool; and if the smoke were imprisoned within the bag much better results would be obtained. This was done, and, to the great joy of the brothers and their visitor, the bag at once rose quickly to the ceiling.

But though they could make the bags rise their great trouble was that they did not know the cause of this ascent. They thought, however, that they were on the eve of some great discovery, and, as events proved, they were not far wrong. For a time they imagined that the fire they had used generated some special gas, and if they could find out the nature of this gas, and the means of making it in large quantities, they would be able to add to their success.

Of course, in the light of modern knowledge, it seems strange that the brothers did not know that the reason the bags rose, was not because of any special gas being used, but owing to the expansion of air under the influence of heat, whereby hot air tends to rise. Every schoolboy above the age of twelve knows that hot air rises upwards in the atmosphere, and that it continues to rise until its temperature has become the same as that of the surrounding air.

The next experiment was to try their bags in the open air. Choosing a calm, fine day, they made a fire similar to that used in their first experiments, and succeeded in making the bag rise nearly 100 feet. Later on, a much larger craft was built, which was equally successful.

And now we must leave the experiments of the Montgolfiers for a moment, and turn to the discovery of hydrogen gas by Henry Cavendish, a well-known London chemist. In 1766 Cavendish proved conclusively that hydrogen gas was not more than one-seventh the weight of ordinary air. It at once occurred to Dr. Black, of Glasgow, that if a thin bag could be filled with this light gas it would rise in the air; but for various reasons his experiments did not yield results of a practical nature for several years.

Some time afterwards, about a year before the Montgolfiers commenced their experiments which we have already described, Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian chemist, succeeded in making, with hydrogen gas, soap-bubbles which rose in the air. Previous to this he had experimented with bladders and paper bags; but the bladders he found too heavy, and the paper too porous.

It must not be thought that the Montgolfiers experimented solely with hot air in the inflation of their balloons. At one time they used steam, and, later on, the newly-discovered hydrogen gas; but with both these agents they were unsuccessful. It can easily be seen why steam was of no use, when we consider that paper was employed; hydrogen, too, owed its lack of success to the same cause for the porosity of the paper allowed the gas to escape quickly.

It is said that the name "balloon" was given to these paper craft because they resembled in shape a large spherical vessel used in chemistry, which was known by that name. To the brothers Montgolfier belongs the honour of having given the name to this type of aircraft, which, in the two succeeding centuries, became so popular.

After numerous experiments the public were invited to witness the inflation of a particularly huge balloon, over 30 feet in diameter. This was accomplished over a fire made of wool and straw. The ascent was successful, and the balloon, after rising to a height of some 7000 feet, fell to earth about two miles away.

It may be imagined that this experiment aroused enormous interest in Paris, whence the news rapidly spread over all France and to Britain. A Parisian scientific society invited Stephen Montgolfier to Paris in order that the citizens of the metropolis should have their imaginations excited by seeing the hero of these remarkable experiments. Montgolfier was not a rich man, and to enable him to continue his experiments the society granted him a considerable sum of money. He was then enabled to construct a very fine balloon, elaborately decorated and painted, which ascended at Versailles in the presence of the Court.