A Fascinating Flight into the Unknown ~ Hot-Air Balloons
When I start a new novel or even a blog post, I am prone to falling down research rabbit holes in the pursuit of historical fact. With my most recent release, I became lost with Alice on several occasions as my characters led me far into unknown territory.
One of the most fascinating diversions – and integral to the plot – was the subject of early aviation. I needed to know everything, from the materials used and methods of proofing, to the heights and distances achieved. It was a warren of massive proportions and I was lost for days with Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.
The first balloons were filled with hot air only in the very beginning. Although smoke was used in early experiments to inflate the chosen spheres, it was soon discovered that they would descend rapidly once the air was used up. Experiments were carried out with small balloons made of ‘gold-beater’s skin’ and sealed with gum arabic. This was filled from a jar or some form of bladder and then tied with a thread. Through the experiments of Henry Cavendish (published as early as 1766), it was discovered that ‘inflammable air’, known to us as hydrogen gas, was lighter than air. It was therefore concluded that if the weight of the container, added to that of the enclosed gas, was lighter than the weight of an equal quantity of ‘common air’, the contraption would rise. Hydrogen gas was found to be easier to replenish.
Hydrogen was created by the action of water and sulphuric acid on iron and zinc shavings. Sulphuric acid must be diluted with five to six parts water. Iron can produce seventeen hundred times its own bulk in gas. Therefore, one cubic foot of ‘inflammable air’ can be produced from 4½ ounces iron, 4½ ounces sulphuric acid and 22½ ounces water. Chippings of large pieces of iron, e.g. cannon, work better than filings, since there is less heat and the diluted acid may pass through more easily. Thus produced, the gas was then fed into a cask (open at the base) immersed in a copper of water and pumped into the suspended balloon.
In June 1782, a paper was read at the Royal Society, detailing the experiments of Tiberius Cavallo, who was the first to attempt to elevate a hydrogen-filled balloon into the air. The use of bladders from various animals and fish failed, as did the attempt to make light and durable globes by pumping gas into dense solutions of oil, varnish or gum. Only soap bubbles filled with gas were successful.
Frenchman Jacques Charles had made a considerable study of gases, leading to the establishment of Charles’ Law, which stated that the ‘volume of a given mass of gas at constant pressure increases by 1/273 of its volume at nought degrees C for each degree C rise of temperature’. In August 1783, he designed a balloon which was then made by the Robert brothers. It was created from strips of silk, stitched together and then varnished with a solution of turpentine in which rubber had been dissolved. They used alternate strips of red and white, but the solution discoloured the white silk to yellow. The balloon was approximately thirteen feet in diameter (thirty-five cubic metres) and able to lift almost twenty pounds (nine kilos). It flew north for three-quarters of an hour before landing twenty-five kilometres (just over 15½ miles) away.
This discolouration led me off down another tunnel, as I wanted to discover if there was any method of proofing available at the time which would not tarnish the silk and which my character could ‘invent’. I am no chemist, but from my discoveries, it would seem that a solution of borax, boric acid and hot water will make fabric fireproof, sufficient for the task. Sassolite, the mineral form of boric acid, was first defined in 1800. However, the solution is not waterproof. This added an exciting plot development! Further research brought to light the information that potash alum is a chemical compound used in the tanning process, to fix dyes and fireproof textiles. When mixed with soap, it produces a waterproof gel. It was one of those rare moments of triumph, I must admit.
The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, are considered the pioneers of balloon flight. They manufactured paper at their factory in Annonay, near Lyons. Through their manufacturing processes, they discovered that ash rose when paper was burned. On 15 June 1783, they produced a sphere constructed of ‘a covering of cloth lined with paper’ and inflated it with smoke. It then rose into the air and travelled more than 7,000 feet, to the astonishment of their audience at Annonay. It is thought they began thinking about such an aeronautic vessel as early as nine or ten months prior. One of the brothers* had already made an experiment using ‘rarefied air’ in November 1782. He used a bag of fine silk, in the shape of a parallelopipedon, open on one side, the capacity of which was equal to about 40 cubic feet. Burning paper, applied to its aperture, served to rarefy the air, or to form the cloud; and, when sufficiently expanded, the machine ascended rapidly to the ceiling of the room, to quote Colin Mackenzie. This discovery was afterwards confirmed, improved, and diversified, by several persons, in different parts of the world.
*Colin Mackenzie suggests this was ‘Stephen, the elder brother’, but in actual fact Joseph was the elder by five years. Since Mr. Mackenzie also names the second brother John, it demonstrates why it is so important to double and even triple check facts.
The success of this venture precipitated enormous excitement in Paris, where a subscription was raised, with various persons of rank keen to be involved. The Robert brothers were commissioned to construct a hydrogen balloon and Jacques Charles was appointed director of proceedings. A bag was constructed of lutestring and varnished with a solution of ‘dissolved elastic gum’. It measured about thirteen feet in diameter, had one opening at the neck and, including the stop-cock, weighed twenty-five pounds before inflation. Due to a number of difficulties in filling and other delays, it finally rose one hundred feet on a cord on 26 August 1783. The following afternoon, it was released and in two minutes rose over three thousand feet above the Champs de Mars. It remained aloft about forty-five minutes and landed in the village of Gonesse, about fifteen miles away. The villagers were somewhat alarmed by this alien monster, it seems, and attacked it with pitchforks.
Following this success, many keen men of science, both amateur and academic, entered the race for fame and fortune. The Academy of Sciences invited one of the Montgolfier brothers to build a large balloon to be inflated with hydrogen. This made a speedy ascension on 11 September in a private viewing and was later displayed before their Majesties and a large audience at Versailles, a week later. This was the first ‘passenger’ flight. The balloon was called Aerostat Réveillon and the Montgolfier brothers sent aloft a sheep, a duck and a cockerel, to the delight of the assembled. They believed the duck would be unharmed by being airborne, the cockerel was included as a further control, as a flightless bird, and they considered the sheep to have a similar physiology to man. The craft rose a little over fourteen hundred feet, travelled just over ten thousand feet in eight minutes and landed with the occupants of the basket unharmed.
After this, of course, there was a flurry of activity to elevate man into the skies. Ironic, is it not, of all animals, man is the only one to get ideas above his station! Monsieur Jean-Francois Pilâtres des Roziers publicly – and courageously – declared himself willing to be a guinea-pig. Duly, therefore, on 15 October 1783, he rose in an oval balloon roughly seventy-four feet high and forty-eight feet in diameter. The balloon was tethered, lifted in the region of eighty feet and stayed there for about four minutes. Monsieur Roziers was none the worse for his experience. On 19 October, before a crowd of 2000 people, he ascended to a height of 200 feet for six minutes. In a second ascension the same day, he remained eight and a half minutes through the suspension of a fire under the balloon. Then, on 21 October 1783, he and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free aeronautic voyage from the gardens of La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne, near Paris, in a Montgolfier brothers’ balloon. Rising to 250 feet, and carried by the wind, they flew over Paris. The flight was controllable through a smoky fire in an iron basket beneath the balloon, but embers threatened to burn it, so they had to descend before their fuel supply was used up. In recognition of their work in the development of aeronautics, this type of balloon was called Montgolfière after the brothers.
The first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon was made before thousands of onlookers a few days after Roziers and Arlandes, by Professor Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert, from the Jardins des Tuilleries in Paris on 1 December 1783. Covered by a net, supported by a hoop around its centre, the balloon was in the shape of a globe twenty-seven feet in diameter. Amidst much ceremony and accompanied by four of the most celebrated noblemen in France, including M. de Richelieu, it was taken to the launch site. The balloon was fitted with a cord-operated valve at the top to control possible expansion of the gas at altitude and a boat was suspended from the hoop. With them in this vessel, the two gentlemen carried philosophical instruments, sand ballast, clothing and provisions. Having ascended, they remained stationary for a while and then travelled horizontally in a NNW direction, crossing the Seine and passing above towns and villages. They were followed by a group of horsemen led by the Duc de Chartres. The voyage lasted for one hour, forty-five minutes and they finally descended at Nesle, twenty-seven miles from Paris, a rate of fifteen miles per hour ‘without feeling the least inconvenience’.
Professor Charles decided to ascend a second time. Since the balloon has lost some of its gas, he went alone and rose swiftly to over 9,800 feet. Feeling aching pain in his ears, he opened the valve and descended again about two miles away. He did not fly again, but a balloon employing hydrogen for ascension became known as a Charlière.
Tragedy struck Jean-Francois Pilâtres des Roziers and his brother Romain on 15 June 1785. In a double balloon, des Roziers attempted to fly across the English Channel from Boulogne. The gas caught fire, engulfed the balloon, which then crashed to earth. Both men died as a result and a memorial was erected on the spot where they fell, near Wimereux (a village between Boulogne and Calais). There were many such accidents, although fortunately most did not end with the fatality of these pioneers of the skies. The causes were varied, from insufficient preparation, to adverse weather conditions and unforeseen events. The Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon lost gas because the pieces of the cover were held together with buttons and button holes.
While much of the early ballooning experimentation occurred on the Continent, particularly in France, it was not exclusively so. In the United Kingdom, interest was growing in the science, with several gentlemen of the aristocracy sinking large sums into the development of balloon technology. Some even bankrupted themselves. The foremost British aeronaut, James Sadler, was a pastry cook from Oxford. He had no education, was self-taught and developed his fascination for ballooning behind the family shop, The Lemon Hall Refreshment House. To fund his experiments, he put his balloons on display and charged the public to view them. He became a celebrity and was feted everywhere. So famous did he become, in 1785 he went to Cheltenham to perform a balloon flight and the whole town closed. He was invited to perform a balloon ascension in Hyde Park for the Peace Celebrations in 1814.
The first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon in England was made by Vincent Lunardi on 15 September 1784. The balloon had alternate red and blue stripes, a single valve at the neck and a ‘gallery’ with oars suspended below. Ascending from the Artillery Ground in London, he flew twenty-four miles and landed in Hertfordshire. His assistant, George Biggin and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage accompanied him during the ascension, but the balloon did not have enough power to rise with all three. Lunardi therefore made the flight alone, apart from a dog, a cat and a pigeon.
Not far behind Signor Lunardi, James Sadler’s first manned flight took place on 4th October 1784, at 5.30 in the morning, from Merton Gardens, Oxford. The balloon was blown towards Woodeaton, six miles away, and landed safely having reached a height of 3,600 feet. The event was recorded in The Oxford Journal at the time. James Sadler was the first to use coal gas and he also created hydrogen from neat sulphuric acid combined with iron and zinc filings, only he captured it in a quilt rather than by the method described above. Not only that, he was the first to create an adjustable fire to control the altitude of a balloon.
The next great challenge awaiting the intrepid aeronauts still protects (or divides, depending on your point of view) the British Isles from the Continent. The shortest distance across the English Channel lies between Dover and Calais, at twenty-one miles. Various attempts were made, with greater or lesser degrees of success, but the first aeronaut eventually to cross the English Channel was Jean-Pierre Blanchard (with American doctor John Jeffries) on 7 January 1785. The flight was not without incident; the pair almost capsized into the sea and narrowly salvaged the adventure by throwing everything out of the basket and even removing clothing. Luckily for the two gentlemen, having, no doubt, seen their lives flash before them, the balloon ascended again in the nick of time. The wind then lifted, changed direction and carried the machine over the forest of Guines. By seizing a branch of a tree, Dr. Jeffries managed to halt their progress; they released the gas from the balloon and safely landed. It was a most ‘daring and memorable enterprise’ and won for Blanchard a particularly gracious greeting from a cavalcade of horsemen, the freedom of Calais and an annual pension of 1,200 livres from the King. The Queen of France, who was at play, placed some coin on a card and then presented him with the winnings. The balloon was bought by the municipality of Calais and kept as a memorial; a monument of marble was later placed on the site where it landed.
All in all, it could be said Blanchard and Jeffries’ flight across the heavens, brush with death and visit to [a royal gaming] hell turned out rather swimmingly! The next time you board a jumbo jet en route to a foreign holiday, though, spare a thought for the intrepid gentlemen who made it possible.
© Heather King
Wonderful Balloon Ascents, F. Marion
1000 Experiments in Chemistry, Colin Mackenzie
The Bicester Local History Society: James Sadler – Oxford Pastry Cook and First English Aeronaut
Various online sources including BBC News Oxford
Meet Author Heather King
A confessed romantic and bookworm, Heather King has always made up stories. Discovering Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels began a lifelong love of the era, although she enjoys well-written books from other times too. Heather’s stories are traditional romps – light-hearted and witty, with bags of emotion. You walk with her characters through the world they inhabit. She also writes Paranormal Shape Shifter romance.
Visiting her Dark Side as Vandalia Black, she wrote Vampires Don’t Drink Coffee and Other Stories which includes a novella set during the English Civil War.
When not looking after her two hairy ponies, three cats and boisterous Staffie X, or frowning over keypad or notebook, she likes nothing better than taking long walks and curling up with a good book.
Introducing The Missing Duke
When his father dies, Lord Adam Bateman refuses to succeed to the dukedom which rightly belongs to his missing elder brother. Whilst performing secret and sensitive missions for the Duke of Wellington, he continues his efforts to find his twin. The search has become Adam’s all-consuming passion, leaving no time for affairs of the heart.
Miss Lucy Mercier is also seeking answers. Her father, a tailor, had been used to make hot air balloons for various noble patrons, including Lord Adam’s sire. Believing the deceased Duke of Wardley had been involved in her papa’s failure to return from the Continent, she takes employment in Lord Adam’s household in order to discover the truth. Then she accompanies him on an important commission for the Allied Army, and finds herself having to guard against a growing attraction for a man she knows she can never have.
Are the two disappearances connected and will two heads prove better than one in the pursuit of answers? Will Adam and Lucy find true happiness together or will the past – and their different stations – rise to keep them apart?
The Heart of a Hero Series
The Missing Duke is Book 9 in the Heart of a Hero Series, which features stand-alone novels from nine Regency authors connected by a common theme, each telling the story of a man or woman who is a hero in all senses of the word. The series begins with a free novella, No Rest for the Wicked by Cora Lee.
If one person can change a city, eleven can change the world.
What if your favourite superheroes had Regency-era doppelgangers? And what if a group of them were recruited by the Duke of Wellington to gather intelligence for him during the Napoleonic Wars while they protected their own parts of the realm?
You’d get The Heart of a Hero series.
Contact links Heather King
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00I04PYPE
Amazon Author Page (US): http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00I04PYPE
Other Books by Heather King: