First Manned (Tethered) Balloon Ascent, 1783

Democratic People's Republic of Korea #2245 (1982)

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea #2245 (1982)

On October 15, 1783, Étienne Montgolfier became the first human to lift off the earth. He did this in a (tethered) hot air balloon called the Aérostat Réveillon, designed and built by Étienne and his older brother Joseph in their shop in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (August  26, 1740 – June 26, 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (January 6, 1745 – August 2, 1799) were the inventors of the Montgolfière-style hot air balloon, globe aérostatique. The brothers succeeded in launching the first piloted ascent. Later, in December 1783, in recognition of their achievement, their father Pierre was elevated to the nobility and the hereditary appellation of de Montgolfier by King Louis XVI of France.

The brothers were born into a family of paper manufacturers in Annonay, in Ardèche, France. Their parents were Pierre Montgolfier (1700–1793) and his wife, Anne Duret (1701–1760), who had sixteen children. Pierre established his eldest son, Raymond (1730–1772), as his successor. Joseph, the twelfth child, possessed a typical inventor’s temperament — a maverick and dreamer, and impractical in terms of business and personal affairs. Étienne had a much more even and businesslike temperament. As the fifteenth child, and particularly troublesome to his elder siblings, he was sent to Paris to train as an architect. After the sudden and unexpected death of Raymond in 1772, he was recalled to Annonay to run the family business. In the subsequent ten years, Étienne applied his talent for technical innovation to the family business; paper making was a high-tech industry in the eighteenth century. He succeeded in incorporating the latest Dutch innovations of the day into the family mills.

Of the two brothers, it was Joseph who first contemplated building machines as early as 1782 when he observed laundry drying over a fire incidentally form pockets that billowed upwards. He made his first definitive experiments in November 1782 while living in the city of Avignon. He reported some years later that he was watching a fire one evening while contemplating one of the great military issues of the day — an assault on the fortress of Gibraltar, which had proved impregnable from both sea and land. Joseph mused on the possibility of an air assault using troops lifted by the same force that was lifting the embers from the fire. He believed that contained within the smoke was a special gas, which he called Montgolfier Gas, with a special property he called levity.

As a result of these musings, Joseph set about building a box-like chamber 3 feet by 3 feet x 4 feet (1×1×1.3 meters) out of very thin wood, and covering the sides and top with lightweight taffeta cloth. He crumpled and lit some paper under the bottom of the box. The contraption quickly lifted off its stand and collided with the ceiling. Joseph then recruited his brother to balloon building by writing, “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.” The two brothers then set about building a similar device, scaled up by three (so 27 times greater in volume). The lifting force was so great that they lost control of their craft on its very first test flight on December 14, 1782. The device floated nearly two kilometers (about 1.2 miles) and was destroyed after landing by the “indiscretion” of passersby.

The brothers decided to make a public demonstration of a balloon to establish their claim to its invention. They constructed a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth with three thin layers of paper inside. The envelope could contain nearly 28,000 cubic feet (790 m³) of air and weighed 500 pounds (225 kilograms). It was constructed of four pieces (the dome and three lateral bands) and held together by 1,800 buttons. A reinforcing fish net of cord covered the outside of the envelope.

On June 4, 1783, they flew this craft as their first public demonstration at Annonay in front of a group of dignitaries from the États particuliers. Its flight covered 1.2 miles (2 km), lasted 10 minutes, and had an estimated altitude of 5,200-6,600 feet (1,600-2,000 meters). Word of their success quickly reached Paris. Étienne went to the capital to make further demonstrations and to solidify the brothers’ claim to the invention of flight. Joseph, given his unkempt appearance and shyness, remained with the family.

In collaboration with the successful wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, Étienne constructed a 37,500-cubic foot (1,060 m³) envelope of taffeta coated with a varnish of alum (which has fireproofing properties). The balloon was sky blue and decorated with golden flourishes, signs of the zodiac, and suns. The design showed the intervention of Réveillon. The next test was on the September 11th from the grounds of la Folie Titon, a hotel in Montreuil on the outskirts of Paris close to Réveillon’s house. There was some concern about the effects of flight into the upper atmosphere on living creatures. The king proposed to launch two convicted criminals.

On September 19, 1783, the Aérostat Réveillon was flown with the first living beings in a basket attached to the balloon: a sheep called Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”), a duck and a rooster. The sheep was believed to have a reasonable approximation of human physiology. The duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted aloft. It was included as a control for effects created by the aircraft rather than the altitude. The rooster was included as a further control as it was a bird that did not fly at high altitudes. This demonstration was performed before a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles (3 km), and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet (460 m). The craft landed safely after flying.

With the successful demonstration at Versailles, and again in collaboration with Réveillon, Étienne started building a 60,000-cubic foot (1,700 m³) balloon for the purpose of making flights with humans. The balloon was about seventy-five feet (23 m) tall and about fifty feet (15 m) in diameter. It had rich decorative touches supplied by Réveillon. The color scheme was gold figures on a deep blue background. Fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns with Louis XVI’s face in the center interlaced with the royal monogram in the central section graced the majestic machine. Red and blue drapery and golden eagles were at the base of the balloon.

Étienne Montgolfier became the first human to lift off the earth, making at least one tethered flight from the yard of the Réveillon workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, on October 15, 1783. A little while later that same day, Pilâtre de Rozier became the second to ascend into the air, to an altitude of 80 feet (24 m), which was the length of the tether.

On November 21, 1783, the first free flight by humans was made by Pilâtre, together with an army officer, the marquis d’Arlandes. The flight began from the grounds of the Château de la Muette (close to the Bois de Boulogne (park)) in the western outskirts of Paris. They flew aloft about 3,000 feet (910 m) above Paris for a distance of nine kilometers. After 25 minutes, the machine landed between the windmills, outside the city ramparts, on the Butte-aux-Cailles. Enough fuel remained on board at the end of the flight to have allowed the balloon to fly four to five times as far. However, burning embers from the fire were scorching the balloon fabric and had to be daubed out with sponges. As it appeared it could destroy the balloon, Pilâtre took off his coat to stop the fire.

These early flights caused a sensation. Numerous engravings commemorated the events. Chairs were designed with balloon backs, and mantel clocks were produced in enamel and gilt-bronze replicas set with a dial in the balloon. One could buy crockery decorated with naive pictures of balloons.

In early 1784 the Flesselles balloon (named after the unfortunate Jacques de Flesselles, later to be an early casualty at the Bastille) gave a rough landing to its passengers. In June 1784 the Gustave saw the first (singing) female aeronaut, Élisabeth Thible.

The Montgolfier Company still exists in Annonay (Ardèche), France). In 1799, Etienne de Montgolfier died. His son-in-law, Barthélémy Barou de la Lombardière de Canson (1774–1859), succeeded him as the head of the company, thanks to his marriage with Alexandrine de Montgolfier. The company became “Montgolfier et Canson” in 1801, then “Canson-Montgolfier” in 1807. Nowadays, Canson still produces fine art papers, school drawing papers and digital fine art and photography papers and is sold in 120 countries.

I have long had a fascination with the pioneers of aviation, an interest nurtured by family vacations that often included various aviation and space museums as well as attending numerous local air shows. Prior to moving to Thailand, I lived for more than ten years in Albuquerque, New Mexico — the hot air ballooning capital of the United States. I attended the International Balloon Fiesta (the world’s largest ballooning event) nearly every year I lived in the Southwest, an occasionally participated as a member of a balloon team’s chase crew. Yet, I’ve only recently extended that fascination into a thematic stamp collection and was quite surprised that I have relatively few stamps depicting early balloons (and none at all portraying the Montgolfier brothers’ craft).

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a set of four stamps, a miniature sheet of five stamps plus a label and a souvenir sheet on November 21, 1982, marking the bicentennial of manned flight (Scott #2245-2250). A similar set was released on December 10 that same year (Scott # 2251-2256); North Korea seems to have learnt its topical issuing “policy” from certain Middle Eastern and Caribbean entities. I only have the lowest value of the November set — a block of four (cancelled-to-order) of the 10 chon value depicting Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1, designed by Thomas Scott Baldwin (June 30, 1854 – May 17, 1923) who was a pioneer balloonist and U.S. Army major during World War I and the first American to descend from a balloon by parachute.

Baldwin was born on June 30, 1854, to Jane and Samuel Yates Baldwin. He worked as a brakeman on the Illinois Railroad, then joined a circus working as an acrobat. In 1875 he started an act combining trapeze and a hot air balloon. On January 30, 1885, he made one of the earliest recorded parachute jumps from a balloon. Baldwin repeated the feat on multiple occasions as a paid entertainer, netting $1500 from one dangerous jump over the water from 600 feet at Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York, in August 1887 marred by parachute difficulties.

In 1900, Baldwin created a small pedal-motorized powered airship. It never served as anything more than a curiosity. In 1902-1903, he supervised the construction of the California Eagle based on the ideas of August Greth and financed by the American Aerial Navigation Company of San Francisco. It incorporated a French DeDion Bouton automotive engine and paddle propeller based on marine technology so prevalent in airship design in the period. After collaborating with Greth and John J. Montgomery in 1903-1904, Baldwin acquired sufficient knowledge to begin his own independent airship project.

In June and July 1904, Baldwin built an aerodynamic cigar-shaped, hydrogen gas filled, balloon. He created the dirigible California Arrow, which incorporated a 7-horsepower Hercules motorcycle engine manufactured by Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York. With Lincoln Beachey as his pilot, the Arrow underwent the first controlled circular flight in America on August 3, 1904, at Idora Park in Oakland, California. In October and November 1904, the aircraft was piloted by Roy Knabenshue at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri.

Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 was the first powered aircraft ordered for the Signal Corps by the Aeronautical Division of the United States Army. Baldwin created a dirigible that was 95 feet (29 meters) long and powered by a new, more powerful Curtiss engine. This was the result of urgings by Chief Signal Officer Brigadier General James Allen. After seeing Baldwin demonstrate a dirigible at the St. Louis air meet in 1907, Allen had urged the U.S. Army to buy a dirigible, as many European armies had dirigibles by the turn of the century

On August 5, 1908, the Army tested the craft at Fort Myer, Virginia. The craft fell short of a two-hour, 20 miles per hour mph objective to meet a $8,000 per unit award. The Army formally accepted the dirigible and designated it SC-1 (Signal Corps Dirigible Number 1), paying $5,737.50. On August 28, 1908, Lieutenants Frank Lahm, Thomas Selfridge and Benjamin Foulois were taught to fly the craft. After Second Lieutenant John G Winter Jr of the 6th Cavalry was assigned to duty in the Aeronautical Division, the balloon detachment was transferred to Fort Omaha, Nebraska. On May 26, 1909, pilot Lieutenant Lahm and Lieutenant Foulois made a flight in SC-1 at Fort Omaha, and maneuvered the craft at will. SC-1 remained there until scrapped in 1912. The Army did not purchase another dirigible until after World War I.

Baldwin picked up the sobriquet: “Father of the American Dirigible.” He received the Aero Club of America’s first balloon pilot certificate.

In 1910 Baldwin designed his own airplane, and it was built by Glenn Hammond Curtiss. It used a 25 horsepower (19 kW), four-cylinder Curtiss engine that was later replaced by a Curtiss V-8 engine. On September 10, 1910, Baldwin made history with the first airplane flight over the Mississippi River. The St. Louis flight started just east of Bellefontaine Cemetery. Baldwin and his Red Devil plane took off at 5:11 p.m. 200,000 citizens lined the riverfront on both sides to watch the red biplane fly from the north St. Louis field and land in Illinois across the river from Arsenal Street. On the return flight, the aviator astounded the crowds by flying under both the Eads and McKinley bridges at fifty miles per hour. Baldwin landed at 6:05 back at his starting place.

Baldwin next flew it at an air meet in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 7, 1910. He spoke to State University of Iowa engineering students on October 11, 1910, and flew demonstrations at the Iowa City, Iowa, fairgrounds on October 12–13, 1910. The flight on October 12 was unsuccessful. On October 13, he flew two flights, one of which was photographed by Julius Robert Hecker. On the second flight he did not gain sufficient altitude and the plane was damaged on a barn but he was uninjured. He then took his airplane to Belmont, New York, and put together a company of aerial performers including J.C. “Bud” Mars and Tod Shriver in December 1910 and toured countries in Asia, making the first airplane flights in many of those locations. The troupe returned to the United States in the spring of 1911.

When he returned from the Pacific tour, Baldwin began testing a new airplane at Mineola, New York. The new aircraft was similar to the basic Curtiss Pusher design but was constructed of steel tubing instead of wood. The aircraft was constructed by C. and A. Wittemann of Staten Island, New York, and was powered by a 60 horsepower (45 kW), Hall-Scott V-8. It was capable of 60 mph (97 km/h). Baldwin named his new aircraft the Red Devil III, and thereafter each of his designs would be called a “Baldwin Red Devil”. Tony Jannus flew actress Julia Bruns in a Red Devil on October 12, 1913, in a New York Times Derby.

In 1914, Baldwin returned to dirigible design and development, and built the U.S. Navy’s first successful dirigible, the DN-I. He began training airplane pilots and managed the Curtiss School at Newport News, Virginia. One of his students was Billy Mitchell, who would later become an advocate of American military air power. When the United States entered the World War I, Baldwin volunteered his services to the United States Army. He was commissioned a captain in the Aviation Section, U. S. Signal Corps and appointed Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production. Consequently, he personally inspected every lighter-than-air craft built for and used by the Army during the war. He was promoted to the rank of major during the war.

After the war, he joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, as a designer and manufacturer of their airships. T.S. Baldwin died on May 17, 1923, in Buffalo, New York, at the age of 69. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.


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