Jean Marie Coutelle offered generals a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield from his “diabolical contraption”
The airplane was barely eight years old in 1911 when Italians flew Blériot XIs and Etrich Taubes on aerial reconnaissance missions during their invasion of Libya. But aerial recon was far from new even then. Its history dated back over a century to 1794, when French Captain Jean Marie Joseph Coutelle conducted the first military mission in the air via a hydrogen balloon.
The concept of aerial observation dated to October 17, 1783, when François Pilâtre de Rozier and Guillaume Grioud de Villette made the very first ascent in a tethered hot-air balloon developed by Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne Montgolfier. Looking down on Paris, Grioud remarked, “This fairly inexpensive machine would be very useful to an army for discovering the enemy’s position, maneuvers, movements, and supplies, and for reporting them by signals.”After a subsequent flight with de Rozier, Captain François Laurent recommended that instruments be developed for just such operations.
While the hot-air balloon had limited potential, the first flight of a hydrogen balloon by Jean Pierre Blanchard, on March 2, 1784, laid the foundation for practical lighter-than-air flight. Blanchard dramatically demonstrated this on January 7, 1785, when he crossed the English Channel with passenger John Jeffries.
Following the French Revolution, a new political and intellectual elite embraced the possibilities of flight. Among them was engineer and scientist Jean Marie Coutelle. In 1793 the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety engaged him, with Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau and Laurent Lavoisier, to develop a military balloon using a new, improved method of producing hydrogen by running water over iron filings that had been heated red-hot in a brick furnace. Coutelle came up with a varnish that would seal the hydrogen within the gasbag, while de Morveau determined that a tethered balloon would be better than a free-flying one.
Completed on July 30, 1793, their balloon was presented to the committee in October. On November 24, the authorities ordered one of Coutelle’s assistants, Nicolas J. Conte, to construct a new model military balloon, capable of carrying two passengers to 1,700 feet, at the Petit Château in Meudon.
On April 2, 1794, the National Convention officially established the first balloon company under the newly commissioned Captain Coutelle. After a month of training, on May 3 the 50-man Compagnie des Aérostiers was assigned to the Armée du Sambre-et-Meuse, led by General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. The Committee of Public Safety had already told Jourdan that he would be sent a balloon “for the observation of the enemy’s troop movements,” advising him: “Preparations…must be made in a safe, enclosed place behind the lines; the hydrogen will not last longer than twenty-four to thirty hours. It is best to launch the balloon when the weather is expected to be neither rainy nor windy. It will be prudent, for the first ascension, to let out a moderate amount of rope, and if the balloon ascends to two hundred fathoms [1,200 feet], that will be quite the limit.”
The observer would communicate with troops on the ground by means of signals, colored flags and flames that formed 21 different combinations. “If [the observer] has a message that cannot be communicated by the signals, he can write it down and throw the message overboard attached to a ball with a streamer,” the committee said. “Finally, the general can have signals displayed beneath the balloon which he wants to have repeated immediately and which will be visible to commanders who have been alerted to their meaning. Two men must ascend in the balloon no matter what purpose [the general] has in mind: a soldier for observing and making judgment on [the enemy’s] positions and maneuvers and a scientist with an up-to-date knowledge of ballooning, who is to be in charge of the conduct of the balloon and to direct the handling of the cords [by the ground crew] while in the air according to the signals agreed upon, for the safety of the ascension and for coordination with the army’s movements.”
The authorities also issued a book of instructions on the company’s duties, which were primarily “to put at the disposal of the general all the services that can be furnished by the art of aeronautics: (1) to clarify the enemy’s marches, movements, and plans; (2) to transport quickly signals previously agreed upon with the major generals and commanding officers in the field; (3) finally…to distribute public notices in territory occupied by the despots’ henchmen.”
After Coutelle made his preparations with General Jourdan—who grumbled that he needed more battalions, not balloons—and a furnace had been built to generate hydrogen, Conte’s balloon l’Entreprenant (Enterprise), with Coutelle and Brigade Adj. Gen. Étienne Radet aboard, rose from Maubeuge on June 2, 1794, on aviation’s first military sortie. The French-held town was then under fire from Austrian artillery, and though the enemy gunners aimed at the balloon, they failed to hit it before Coutelle ascended beyond their range.
After helping to break the Maubeuge siege, l’Entreprenant was towed at night to Austrian-occupied Charleroi. Coutelle resumed flights on June 23, variously joined by Colonels Nicolas-Joseph Maison and Jean-Baptiste Olivier, as well as Jourdan’s adjutant, Maj. Gen. Antoine Morlot. Thanks to their observations and Jourdan’s willingness to act on the intelligence they gathered, Austrian General Friedrich Josias von Saxe-Coburg’s maneuvers to relieve Charleroi were thwarted.
At Fleurus on June 26, Coutelle and Morlot spent nine hours above the battlefield, dispatching information on enemy dispositions. Fleurus ended as a French victory, with Charleroi’s Austrian garrison (some of whom claimed they had been disoriented and demoralized by the “diabolical contraption”) surrendering. After that battle, the first to be affected by aerial observation, the Austrians withdrew from the Netherlands.
Morveau later got a letter quoting Austrian and Dutch deserters about l’Etreprenant: “They assured [us] that General Cobourg [sic] had cursed the thing copiously, that he kept saying that ‘there’s nothing those scoundrels don’t invent; there’s a spy in that thing and I can’t get at him to have him hanged!’”
The committee authorized the formation of a second balloon company on June 23, and a balloon school was founded at Meudon. More gas balloons were produced and deployed to a number of fronts, including Egypt, with Napoleon Bonaparte. But Bonaparte decided that any advantages offered by aerial observation were offset by the need to transport furnaces to inflate his balloons. He left them aboard his ships, to be destroyed by British Rear Adm. Sir Horatio Nelson. Back in France, Bonaparte disbanded both Compagnies des Aérostiers and the balloon school.
Jean Coutelle explored the Sinai in 1800, later suggesting a means of transporting obelisks from Egypt that, in 1833, was used to bring one to Paris’ Place de la Concorde. He died in Paris on March 20, 1835.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.