Louis XVI appointed two of his courtiers to become France’s first air travelers.

Just before 2 P.M. on Friday, November 21, 1738 near the Bois de Boulogne, two men stood inside a circular wicker basket draped with blue cloth. One of them, Francois Laurens, Marquis d’Arlande, waved serenely at the crowd that had gathered around them. “You are doing nothing!” the other man, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, shouted at him. “And the balloon is scarcely rising!”  Apologizing, the marquis coolly turned away from his audience and ducked under a drape to seize a pitchfork. He began tossing chopped straw into the fire blazing in a metal brazier hung from ropes. Air heated by the flames filled the dome of a 70-foot Easter egg of blue and gold silk that floated above them. Then it began rising, hoisting its two passengers over the roofs of Paris.

The balloon had been constructed by brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, who had tested it by flying a sheep and other animals above the Palace of Versailles. They declined to fly in it themselves, however, and asked King Louis XVI for permission to continue their test flights using condemned criminals. Instead, the king had provided two courtiers for the experiment.

“Saint Germaine, Sainte Denis, Sevres!” As the balloon drifted toward the Seine River, d’Arlande searched for landmarks below and called out their names. “Some fire, my dear friend, some fire!” Rozier shouted at him, fearful of falling into the river.

Black boxes had not yet been invented, of course, so a letter written by the marquis preserves our sole record of the in-flight conversation (an English translation appears in The Saga of a Flight, edited by Neville Duke and Edward Lanchbery). By his own account, d’Arlande was witty and unflappable: “I heard from the top of the balloon a sound which made me believe that it had burst….My companion had gone into the interior to make some observations….I said, ‘What are you doing? Are you having a dance?’”

It was not the sound of tapping heels that d’Arlande had heard but the snap of breaking ropes. Embers rising from the fire had burned through two lines and now threatened to burn holes in the fabric gasbag. The marquis stretched high to dab at some charred spots with a wet sponge. “We must descend!” he shouted.

Rozier, explaining that they were now over Paris, suggested that they try to gain altitude and come down outside the city. The marquis agreed. Eventually they landed near the Luxembourg gardens, where the balloon immediately deflated. “I looked around for Rozier and saw him in his shirtsleeves crawling from under the mass of [fabric] that had fallen on top of him. Before trying to descend he had taken off his coat and put it in the basket,” d’Arlande wrote. “After a great deal of trouble we were at last all right.” In less than half an hour the pair had traveled a distance of five miles from the center of Paris to the suburbs.

So much for the conquest of the air on the Continent. Ten months after the marquis flight over Paris, Vincent Lunardi, a secretary at the Neapolitan embassy in London, requested permission from Chelsea Hospital to use its courtyard for a balloon ascent in mid-August 1784.

A French doctor named de Moret (according to some accounts, actually a Swiss crook who called himself the chevalier de Moret) had meanwhile announced a balloon launch of his own on August 10 in Five Fields (a rural area that later became Belgravia). Sixty thousand people paid admission to witness the event, but when de Moret’s oven failed to inflate his balloon, the crowd turned ugly. De Moret managed to escape, but rioters destroyed the balloon and the teahouse courtyard that was to have been its launch site.

Following the Five Fields riot, Chelsea Hospital withdrew its approval for Lunardi’s project. Several unsuccessful attempts later, Lunardi arranged to use the artillery grounds at Moorfields, where he could carry out his launch protected by a company of Royal Artillery. By September 15, 1784, his chemical reactor had produced enough hydrogen gas to fill a 30-foot bag of red and white silk. But when Lunardi and his colleague, a Mr. Biggen, climbed into the gondola, they discovered that the balloon was unable to lift them. The crowd of 150,000 ticket holders started to grumble ominously. Fortunately for Lunardi, his diplomatic connections had persuaded George, Prince of Wales, to attend. The prince’s eloquence and the artillery soldiers prevented the crowd from attacking.

On another occasion Lunardi attached a smaller gondola to his balloon and took off solo, accompanied only by his cat, his dog and a caged pigeon. Once airborne, according to his report, he immediately downed several glasses of wine and ate a chicken leg (establishing a precedent for millions of subsequent air travelers). As Lunardi hovered over London, King George III adjourned a cabinet meeting, saying to his ministers, “We may resume our own deliberations at pleasure, but we may never see poor Lunardi again!” Unknown to all at the time, however, Lunardi had already lost the race to be the first to fly in Great Britain. Scotsman James Tytler beat him to the goal on August 27.

Tytler, the son of a clergyman, was a chemist, inventor, historian and writer. To save the cost of copying out his manuscripts, he typeset books and pamphlets as he composed them, using a portable printing press that he had invented. Tytler wrote two-thirds of the articles that appeared in the 10-volume second edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, receiving wide acclaim for his learning—even though he made only 16 shillings per week. The chapter devoted to him in Robert Chambers’ Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen tells how a contemporary who went to ask Tytler to write a scholarly article “was informed by the old woman with whom he resided, that he could not see him, as he had gone to bed rather the worse of liquor. Determined, however, not to depart without completing his errand, he was shown into Mr. Tytler’s apartment by the light of a lamp, where he found him in the situation described by the landlady….Mr. Tytler called for pen and ink, and in a short time produced about a page and a half of letterpress, which answered the end as completely as if it had been the result of the most mature deliberation, previous notice, and a mind undisturbed by any liquid capable of deranging its ideas.”

Tytler chose to make his attempt in a hot air balloon like the Montgolfiers’ rather than an expensive hydrogen balloon like Lunardi’s. He glued hundreds of yards of sacking together to make an angular 40-foot-high bag and attached paper to the interior. He built a wooden gondola with a stove that supplied heated air, then tested the entire machine in Comely Gardens, near Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. When it failed, onlookers smashed the gondola.

Tytler next removed the paper lining from his gasbag and varnished the cloth to make it airtight but lighter. At 6 a.m. on August 27, he again fired up his stove. The balloon strained against ropes attaching it to an empty shipping crate—Tytler’s replacement for the smashed gondola. His balloon remained earthbound. At 6:30 Tytler jettisoned the heaviest cargo in the crate, his iron stove. In a 1999 article in The Scotsman, Jim Gilchrist quoted Tytler’s own account of the result: “I suffered myself to be projected up-wards…without ballast or indeed without thinking of any. The balloon set off from the ground with the swiftness of an arrow….For my own part, I had scarce time to taste the pleasure of an aerial journey, and during the little time I was in the air, I amused myself with looking at the spectators running about in confusion below. My reception from the ground was much more rude than I expected and though insufficient to hurt, was enough to warn me to proceed no more in this way.”

Tytler staged a repeat performance four days later. Following that demonstration, however, he discontinued all his attempts at ballooning. He researched early Scots ballads for Robert Burns (who later admitted that Tytler had made up many of his published verses) for a time, later emigrating to Salem, Mass.

Unaware that Tytler had upstaged him, Lunardi drifted northward over London at an altitude of 6,000 feet. Ice that formed on his balloon made it sink rapidly, and it descended to earth near North Mimms. Lunardi reduced his cargo weight by dumping sandbags and entrusting his cat—who evidently disliked flying—to the care of a local woman before he took off again. His balloon drifted farther north, coming down in a field near Ware. By his own report, Lunardi saw a party of laborers nearby and “requested their assistance, but they would have nothing to do with one who came on the Devil’s Horse….I at last owed my deliverance to a young woman in the field who took hold of a cord I had thrown out.” Two of Lunardi’s friends who had been chasing the balloon on horseback brought him to the Bull Inn at Ware, where he granted an interview to the Morning Post. In the field where he landed, the newspaper later set up a monument with a plaque that read: “Let posterity know, and knowing be astonished, that on the fifteenth day of September, 1784, Vincent Lunardi of Lucca, in Tuscany, the first aerial traveler in Britain, mounting from the Artillery Ground in London, and traversing the regions of the air for two hours and fifteen minutes, on this spot revisited the earth. In this rude monument for ages be recorded this wondrous enterprise successfully achieved by the powers of chemistry….”


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.