Jacques Charles And The First Hydrogen Balloon

Jan 19, 2023 0 comments

On June 4, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers gave the first public demonstration of a hot-air balloon in southern France. The balloon, made of tightened sackcloth padded with paper, rose to nearly 2 kilometers and remained airborne for 10 minutes. Word of their success quickly reached Paris and excited Jacques Charles, a French inventor and scientist, who was well acquainted with the properties of gases. Having studied the works of Robert Boyle and his contemporaries Henry Cavendish, Joseph Black and Tiberius Cavallo, Charles believed that hydrogen would be a more ideal gas for lifting balloons than hot air. A hot-air balloon, he thought, was rather dangerous because of its open flame. Hydrogen, although inflammable, was completely enclosed in the balloon making it safer.

The first manned hydrogen balloon flight by Jacques Charles with Nicolas-Louis Robert, December 1, 1783.

Jacques Charles decided to build one. So he hired two engineers, brothers Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert, to help him build what would become the world’s first hydrogen balloon. To help fund this expensive undertaking, naturalist and geologist BarthĂ©lemy Faujas de Saint-Fond opened a public subscription, selling tickets for a demonstration with time and place to be announced later. The elite of Paris, having witnessed the fascinating flight of the Montgolfier brothers a few weeks earlier, signed up eagerly.

Charles designed the balloon and asked the Robert brothers to construct a lightweight but airtight gas bag. The Roberts came up with a methodology that consisted of dissolving rubber in a solution of turpentine, and using the solution to varnish sheets of silk to make them impermeable to the gas. The sheets of silk were then stitched together to make the main envelope.

The balloon was comparatively small, about 13 feet in diameter, and only capable of lifting about 9 kg. For filling the balloon with hydrogen gas, large quantities of hydrochloric acid was poured into a barrel containing iron filings. The resulting hydrogen was fed to the balloon through a connecting hose from the barrel.

Inflation of the first hydrogen balloon. Photo: National Air and Space Museum

Filling of the balloon started on August 23, 1783, in the Place des Victoires. Hydrogen production by chemical reaction was a slow process and so the filling took several days. In order to speed up the production of hydrogen, the Robert brothers invented a device consisting of a bureau with iron-lined drawers so that the acid had more surface area of metal to react with. But the apparatus did not function properly, and they reverted to using the barrel. To keep the crowd interested, Charles issued daily progress bulletins on the inflation. Finally, after innumerable technical difficulties and delays, the balloon was ready.

On August 27, 1783, the world’s first unmanned hydrogen balloon took off from the Champ de Mars, a large military parade ground in Paris. The balloon was released when a storm had began to gather. But the bad weather did not spoil the enthusiasm of the gathered crowd. “Even the ladies ignored the rain spoiling their elegant dresses and coiffures as they turned their faces to the sky,” wrote Jane E. Boyd. Buoyed by the hydrogen, the balloon shot straight up into the sky and within minutes was lost from view in the clouds.

Faujas de Saint-Fond later described the crowd’s reactions: “The idea of a body parted from the earth and voyaging in space had something so admirable and so sublime about it, so far removed from ordinary laws.”

Approximately 45 minutes after taking off, the balloon, which had lost some of its hydrogen, descended and touched down in a village located 15 miles north of Paris. The villagers, unaware with the recent progress in ballooning, were frightened by the unexpected appearance from the sky and responded by attacking it with various farm tools such as pitchforks, scythes, and blunderbusses.

Villagers attacking the hydrogen balloon because they weren't used to things flying.

Among the crowd of onlookers who saw the balloon fly was Benjamin Franklin. Later, when someone asked him what purpose this new invention served, Franklin famously answered: “What purpose does a newborn child have?“

Excited by this achievement, Charles and the Robert brothers began making preparations for their next endeavor—sending a man or two up in a balloon. Four months later, on December 1, 1783, Charles and Nicolas-Louis, an instrument maker, climbed aboard the balloon and soared to a height of roughly 500 meters. They flew for an unprecedent 2 hours and 5 minutes travelling 36 km, before descending safely on the Plain of Nesle, north of Paris after sunset. Nicolas-Louis alighted and Charles took off once again, this time ascending rapidly to an altitude of about 3,000 meters, where he saw the setting sun rise again. Unfortunately, a throbbing pain in his ear due to low atmospheric pressure began to disturb him, forcing him to descend and he landed gently about 3 km away at Tour du Lay.

Jacques Charles.

In spite of this successful trip, Charles decided not to fly again, although he did continue to design balloons. One of his design, an elongated, steerable craft, built according to the proposals of French mathematician Jean Baptiste Meusnier, incorporated a rudder and oars for propulsion, although they proved to be useless. On July 15, 1784, the Robert brothers flew in this craft for 45 minutes. The Robert brothers flew again, this time with M. Collin-Hullin, on September 19, 1784. They flew for 6 hours 40 minutes, covering 186 km from Paris to Beuvry near BĂ©thune, thus becoming the first balloonists to cover over 100 km.

Jacques Charles developed several useful inventions, including a valve to let hydrogen out of the balloon and other devices, such as the hydrometer and reflecting goniometer, and improved the Gravesand heliostat and Fahrenheit’s aerometer. Charles also described how gases tend to expand when heated—a law that now bears his name.


# Artificial Clouds and Inflammable Air: The Science and Spectacle of the First Balloon Flights, 1783, Distillations
# Jacques Charles and the First Hydrogen Balloon, SciHi Blog


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