Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

on, a much larger craft was built, which was equally successful.

And now we must leave the experiments of the Montgolfiers for a moment, and turn to the discovery of
hydrogen gas by Henry Cavendish, a well-known London chemist. In 1766 Cavendish proved

conclusively that hydrogen gas was not more than one-seventh the weight of ordinary air. It at once

occurred to Dr. Black, of Glasgow, that if a thin bag could be filled with this light gas it would rise in the

air; but for various reasons his experiments did not yield results of a practical nature for several years.

Some time afterwards, about a year before the Montgolfiers commenced their experiments which we
have already described, Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian chemist, succeeded in making, with hydrogen gas,

soap-bubbles which rose in the air. Previous to this he had experimented with bladders and paper bags;

but the bladders he found too heavy, and the paper too porous.

It must not be thought that the Montgolfiers experimented solely with hot air in the inflation of their
balloons. At one time they used steam, and, later on, the newly-discovered hydrogen gas; but with both

these agents they were unsuccessful. It can easily be seen why steam was of no use, when we consider

that paper was employed; hydrogen, too, owed its lack of success to the same cause for the porosity of

the paper allowed the gas to escape quickly.

It is said that the name "balloon" was given to these paper craft because they resembled in shape a large
spherical vessel used in chemistry, which was known by that name. To the brothers Montgolfier belongs

the honour of having given the name to this type of aircraft, which, in the two succeeding centuries,

became so popular.

After numerous experiments the public were invited to witness the inflation of a particularly huge
balloon, over 30 feet in diameter. This was accomplished over a fire made of wool and straw. The ascent

was successful, and the balloon, after rising to a height of some 7000 feet, fell to earth about two miles


It may be imagined that this experiment aroused enormous interest in Paris, whence the news rapidly
spread over all France and to Britain. A Parisian scientific society invited Stephen Montgolfier to Paris in

order that the citizens of the metropolis should have their imaginations excited by seeing the hero of

these remarkable experiments. Montgolfier was not a rich man, and to enable him to continue his

experiments the society granted him a considerable sum of money. He was then enabled to construct a

very fine balloon, elaborately decorated and painted, which ascended at Versailles in the presence of the


To add to the value of this experiment three animals were sent up in a basket attached to the balloon.
These were a sheep, a cock, and a duck. All sorts of guesses were made as to what would be the fate of

the "poor creatures". Some people imagined that there was little or no air in those higher regions and that

the animals would choke; others said they would be frozen to death. But when the balloon descended the

cock was seen to be strutting about in his usual dignified way, the sheep was chewing the cud, and the

duck was quacking for water and worms.

At this point we will leave the work of the brothers Montgolfier. They had succeeded in firing the
imagination of nearly every Frenchman, from King Louis down to his humblest subject. Strange, was it

not, though scores of millions of people had seen smoke rise, and clouds float, for untold centuries, yet

no one, until the close of the eighteenth century, thought of making a balloon?


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