Flying High – 230 Years Ago Today

‘All the Conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons’
 Benjamin Franklin (France, 1783)
Our galleries cover a period that witnessed many great scientific and technological discoveries and achievements. One of the most visually spectacular of these was the development of balloon flight. Ballooning was a scientific feat that caught popular imagination across Europe in the late eighteenth century.
Crowd watching balloon ascend
Within the new Europe Galleries a display entitled ‘Balloonmania’ will convey how public enthusiasm for ballooning was reflected in the production of fashionable and domestic goods.
On the 1st December 2013 my object of the day simply has to be this eye-catching handkerchief; with a design commemorating an important balloon flight that took place exactly 230 years ago! – the first manned, hydrogen-filled, balloon that ascended from the Tuileries Palace on 1st December 1783.
Ballooning handkerchief
Early Ballooning
The first public demonstration of a ‘hot-air’ balloon was by Jacques-Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier (the Montgolfier brothers) in Annonay on 4 June 1783. Other important ballooning landmarks included, the first tethered balloon flight with human passengers at the Folie Titon, Paris on 19 October 1783, with the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the wallpaper manufacture manager Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette in the basket.
The first successful untethered, free flight with human passengers took place on 21 November 1783, when Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes took off at the Palace of Versailles in a hot air balloon constructed by the Montgolfier brothers.
Model of a Montgolfier Balloon
Early ground-breaking achievements in ballooning occurred exclusively in France but reports of ballooning successes later inspired a host of imitators and innovators to take to the air in other parts of Europe.
The public spectacles of balloon flights were widely disseminated through printed material and the conspicuous impact of ballooning was reflected in a deluge of academic papers, journal reports, pamphlets, poetry and consumer items.
A spreading ‘balloonmania’ helped trigger the production of numerous objects decorated with ballooning iconography, as people of varying social positions demonstrated their fascination with or admiration of balloon flight. The vast range of objects produced commercially included ceramics, glass beadwork, printed textiles and domestically-produced items such as samplers or bedcovers. Even clothing came to incorporate balloon elements, as puffed sleeves on dresses, large hats, coiffures and waistcoat designs could all be adapted to become ‘au ballon’.
1st December 1783
Key features of the handkerchief design that allow us to identify the specific flight depicted are the inclusion of the Tuileries Palace and the silhouette cameos of the four men central to the enterprise: Charles; Robert; Montgolfier; and Ludovicus XVI.
Detail of the silhouette of Charles
The lecturer and physicist Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles oversaw the project and was the designer and pilot of the balloon. Nicolas-Louis Robert and his brother Anne-Jean, both manufacturers of physics instruments, worked with Charles to construct the balloon. Nicolas-Louis Robert also accompanied Charles on the flight. Louis XVI is depicted in recognition of his royal favour in supporting the flight and giving permission for the ascent to be made from the Jardin des Tuileries (Paris). The silhouette named as Montgolfier is probably intended to represent Joseph Montgolfier, whom Charles honoured by asking him to release the small, green, pilot balloon to assess the wind and weather conditions before the flight.
The handkerchief’s depiction of the balloon and gondola correlates with contemporary descriptions of the rubberised silk panels, painted alternately in yellow and red, attached to a blue and gold Rococo gondola. In particular, the ‘stern’ of the gondola basket was recorded as showing a fleurs-de-lis surmounted by a crown and these can be seen suggested in the handkerchief design.
Detail of the balloon
Charles and Robert ascended from the Tuileries, just ten days after Rozier and d’Arlandes’ flight from Versailles. Charles’ project had been partly funded by contributions from the elite of Paris and the flight was a major public event in the city. The crowd of spectators at the Tuileries reportedly numbered ca. 400,000, with a number of them having bought subscription tickets to view the launch from a special enclosure. Notable spectators included Joseph Montgolfier and Benjamin Franklin, the diplomatic representative of the United States of America. The flight lasted over two hours, with the balloon finally coming to a land at Nesles-la-Vallée (12 kilometres south of Boulogne). Charles later described his emotions during the flight as follows:
Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles forever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me – I’m finished with the Earth. From now on it’s the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity!
The depiction of the balloon and the Tuileries Palace on the handkerchief can be recognised in a number of contemporary prints recording the flight. The handkerchief design combines and adapts elements from different sources – both aesthetic and practical considerations would have informed the production process.
The key distinguishing, scientific feature of Charles and Roberts’ balloon, compared to those that had gone before, was that it ascended due to the balloon envelope being filled specifically with hydrogen. The apparatus used to fill the balloon with hydrogen can be seen depicted in the centre of the design along each edge of the handkerchief.
Detail of the barrels
Six steaming barrels are shown connected to a large central pipe. These barrels were used as chemical generators to create the hydrogen required. Each barrel was filled with iron filings and acid, the resultant hydrogen then flowed through the pipes to a central enclosure filled with water before rising into the balloon.
Other details of the handkerchief design reflect discrepancies found recorded in print sources. For example, it was recorded that Charles had fitted a hydrogen release valve to the balloon envelope, a long and narrow neck that could be opened or closed by hand to allow excess gas to escape – some prints do not include this detail, others show it as a plain tube installed at an angle and others as a version of the valved pipe used in the initial inflation of the balloon. The handkerchief shows a pipe with two valves reaching from the opening of the balloon into the basket (its central vertical position dictated by the line of symmetry). Such discrepancies could occur for a number of reasons. For example, visual depictions were produced by individuals who had not witnessed the event, or were created before a flight had taken place in order to take advantage of the crowds of potential customers gathered at the event.
The accuracy of contemporary visual portrayals of balloons and specific flights range from meticulous depictions to fantastic imaginings. Artists and manufacturers aimed to exploit the market for ballooning memorabilia and their tendency to use artistic license (e.g. combining elements from different flights and creating non-specific balloon motifs) can hinder identification or dating of an object’s production. An example of this is that the design of Charles and Roberts’ distinctive gondola can be found repeated in depictions of subsequent balloon flights.
I will return with more about handkerchiefs in the next post!
Detail from 'a View of the Balloon of Mr Sadler's ...'
If you would like to learn more about this handkerchief, a research paper I wrote for the HERA-funded project Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800’ can be accessed online here:

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