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.

To add to the value of this experiment three animals were sent up in a basket attached to the balloon. These were a sheep, a cock, and a duck. All sorts of guesses were made as to what would be the fate of the "poor creatures". Some people imagined that there was little or no air in those higher regions and that the animals would choke; others said they would be frozen to death. But when the balloon descended the cock was seen to be strutting about in his usual dignified way, the sheep was chewing the cud, and the duck was quacking for water and worms.

At this point we will leave the work of the brothers Montgolfier. They had succeeded in firing the imagination of nearly every Frenchman, from King Louis down to his humblest subject. Strange, was it not, though scores of millions of people had seen smoke rise, and clouds float, for untold centuries, yet no one, until the close of the eighteenth century, thought of making a balloon?

The learned Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, who lived in the thirteenth century, seems to have thought of the possibility of producing a contrivance that would float in air. His idea was that the earth's atmosphere was a "true fluid", and that it had an upper surface as the ocean has. He quite believed that on this upper surface - subject, in his belief, to waves similar to those of the sea - an air-ship might float if it once succeeded in rising to the required height. But the difficulty was to reach the surface of this aerial sea. To do this he proposed to make a large hollow globe of metal, wrought as thin as the skill of man could make it, so that it might be as light as possible, and this vast globe was to be filled with "liquid fire". Just what "liquid fire" was, one cannot attempt to explain, and it is doubtful if Bacon himself had any clear idea. But he doubtless thought of some gaseous substance lighter than air, and so he would seem to have, at least, hit upon the principle underlying the construction of the modern balloon. Roger Bacon had ideas far in advance of his time, and his experiments made such an impression of wonder on the popular mind that they were believed to be wrought by black magic, and the worthy monk was classed among those who were supposed to be in league with Satan.