Friday, 18 January 2019

Up, Up, And Away: Hot Air Balloons At Versailles

Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier had invented a whole new way of movement for otherwise land bound animals: upwards. The idea was very close to the same hot air balloons used today: a basket attached to a piece of fabric which was lifted by the use of fire. The Academie Royale des Sciences were intrigued and requested that the experiment be repeated - in front of the king, queen and court. Simon Schama estimated that 100.000 people had turned out to watch the historic event. Astronomers, scientists and foreign dignitaries stood ready as did countless servants, bourgeoises and peasants.

19 September 1783 was chosen as the critical date. Montgolfier had used fabric of a combined weight of 400 kgs and measured 18 meters x 13 meters. The design was left to a friend of his, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who chose to honour their sovereign. Thus, a blue background contrasted with two golden intertwining "Ls" for Louis, as well as the zodiac signs and golden suns. The contraption was placed on a platform in the courtyard and over 30 kgs of straw and wool was used to create the fire needed for the balloon to take off. 

Billedresultat for versailles hot air balloon
Illustration of the ballon taking off from the marble courtyard
- in the back, the chapel can be seen

Lifting such a weight for more than a few seconds was a feat in itself but the stakes were further raised when it was decided that the balloon would carry live cargo. Animals were considered to be ideal for the experiment and consequently an odd group of a sheep, a duck and a cockerel (although some sources claim the duck was a fox) were placed in the basket. Appropriately, the sheep was named Montauciel (the words "mont au ciel" meaning climb to the sky). Plenty of spectators were gathered and waited for the first cannon which was to go off at one in the afternoon. At this point the kindling was lit and once the fire was going the ropes were cut. The second blast was to announce the actual ascent of the balloon which took place some ten minutes after.

The undoubtedly confused animals reached 600 meters above the ground before they slowly began descending due to a tear in the balloon. That was actually a problem that the Montgolfiers had experienced before just days prior. When the basket finally hit the ground again, a full eight minutes had elapsed and the odd company had travelled three and a half km. All the animals were alive but  probably scared. A veterinarian announced that besides a small injury to the rooster's wing everyone had escaped without harm. According to some, the balloon had landed so gently that it had not even broken the limbs of the trees nearby. Louis XVI immediately made them honoured members of his royal menagerie. Others claim that it was Marie Antoinette who bestowed the name on the sheep and took it with her to the Petit Trianon. According to Frédéric Richaud, Montauchiel died there at a ripe old age.

Engraving from 1784 of Rozier's flight over Versailles

For those who had witnessed the ground-breaking achievement it was truly a marvel. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun admitted in her memoirs that she had had tears in her eyes when she saw a balloon rise above the Tuileries in 1785.

The event sparked completely new coiffures - as basically everything did at the time. The coiffure à la Montgolfier featured a small balloon in imitation. Fans, too, were soon adorned with similar images of people frolicking in hot air balloons. Sèvres soon followed suit and manufactured porcelain with soaring balloons. Marie Antoinette was gifted a pair of chairs by the furniture maker Georges Jacob with balloons skillfully carved into the walnut tree. Others could celebrate the balloon-mania with new curtains featuring similar balloon motifs.

Later that year - on 21 November - the first man was sent up in a similar balloon. Pilâtre de Roizer took that title and performed his feat in front of the Dauphin and Louis XVI including scientists from the Academie and the visiting Benjamin Franklin.

Relateret billede
Depicting both a coiffure à la Montgolfier and a
"balloon skirt" - puffed up to match

It would not be the last time that a hot air balloon was to set off from Versailles. The materials were cheap which made it more available than otherwise. The next took off on 23 June 1784 and was named after the queen: Marie Antoinette. The name was aptly chosen considering that it was commissioned by the Princesse de Lamballe. The occasion was a visit from the king of Sweden and Rozier was once again aboard.
The Duc de Chartres also wanted to experience his world from above and ordered his own manufactured. His balloon was elongated, though, and he went up with two other men. He was not the only nobleman to risk a trip to the skies. The Marquis d'Arlandes decided that experience was the best companion and chose none other than Rozier for his flight. He did note, however, that the fire had resulted in several holes in the fabric that made up the balloon.

In 1794 the Montgolfiers' invention suffered the fate of many other brilliant inventions: it was used for war. At the Battle of Fleurus in 1794 it was used to sneak a peak on the combined British-Dutch forces.

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