The first gas
balloon was the perfect invention, because it had exquisite perfection
from the very beginning. The story is this. As has been said, rumours of
the Annonay experiment reached Paris with swiftness, but communication
at the time lacked in precision. When the 37 year old professor Jacques
Alexandre César Charles (1746-1823) was entrusted by the French
Academy of Science with the duty to study the new invention, he could not
fax for details. He sat down and pondered possible ways to build a balloon,
and he came to the solution that a recent scientific discovery had been
put to use.
Charles knew that in 1766 the British scientist Henry Cavendish had isolated a gas that was 14 times lighter than air. It had many names: Flammable air, flogiston and water gas. Later it was called hydrogen. One school of aviation historians maintain that Charles consequently came to the conclusion that the balloon of Annonay was filled with hydrogen. Another one says that Charles seized the opportunity to use his resources of the Academy to build a better balloon than the Montgolfier brothers managed, and that he obviously made the choice to use hydrogen. Personally, I am attracted to the scenario where Charles is thinking that he is copying the Montgolfiers - and I would like to have been present when the three met late in the summer, and Charles grasped the connection.
On August 27, 1783, Charles' first balloon - hardly four metres in diameter - gathered a big crowd of Parisians at the Champs de Mars (where the Eiffel Tower is today). The balloon was made of silk with a cover of rubber solution varnish to keep the hydrogen inside. The gas had been manufactured by pouring 225 kg of sulphuric acid over half a ton of scrap-iron. It was enough to lift 9 kg. A cannon shot signalled the take-off at 5 PM. The small balloon ascended and disappeated towards the north followed by horsemen. One of the spectators was the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.
When someone asked him of what possible use this new invention could be, the 77 year old Franklin replied with a classic line:
"And of what use is a new-born baby?"
After about 45 minutes the balloon descended into a field close to the
little village of Gonesse (the Charles de Gaulle airport is a modern neighbour).
It was here that the local farmers gave their famous display of the eternal
human fright of new technology and strange phenomena.With pick axes and
spades they attacked the monster that had tumbled down from the sky, inspired
by the beast's behaviour to sigh and groan and emit a horrible smell. The
horsemen could only save some torn remains.
(The reference for this is unknown)