All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Load of Hot Air

On summer Sunday evenings on the terrace I could look up from my book to see a brightly coloured hot air balloon carrying its passengers on a voyage of discovery of rural France from above.
A local firm offered these trips, including one to view the chateaux of the Loire, which were very popular as birthday surprises - or shocks.
There were stories of recipients turning on their nearest and dearest and refusing in no uncertain terms to ascend to the heavens before their time...
Luckily there was always surplus demand and the firm prospered.

Today, the twenty sixth of June, is the anniversary of the first time a hot air balloon was used in warfare, in 1794 at the battle of Fleurus near Charleroi, where the armies of the young French Republic faced the coalition of monarchist powers determined to overthrow the rule of the regicides who had ordained the death of Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, on the scaffold.

Use of the balloon enabled the observers aboard to report movements of both armies to the French commander, General Jourdan, who was thus enabled to take rapid action - no longer reliant on the usual method of sending gallopers through the smoke of battle to receive the reports of commanders only aware of their own sector of hell.

Hot air balloons figure later in French military history, when the Prussians were beseiging Paris in the war of 1870....the famous event being the escape by balloon of the minister of the provisional government, Gambetta, aiming to raise resistance in the further provinces of France.
His example was loyally followed - though by terrestrial transport - by French ministers in the later German incursions on the soil of France.
They all appear to think that national resistance can only be made if they are there to lead it...a manifestly false assumption.

The relatively unknown aspect of the seige of Paris was the use of hot air balloons to carry messages to and from the city....which is an idea which La Poste might do well to consider in its relentless drive for economies that ruin what was once a superb service..

In France, these hot air balloons which drift across the skies are known as Montgolfieres, after the two Montgolfier brothers from the Vivarais who made the first successful attempt to launch a lighter than air device in the Place des Cordeliers at Annonay on the fifth of June 1783....a taffeta envelope lined with paper, one hundred and ten feet in circumference, with a platform below bearing the combustibles to fill the balloon -  a mixture of rope, wool and damp straw.
Before the eyes of the crowd, and the notables assembled for the meeting of the Estates of the Vivarais, the device was inflated, released - and soared above.
Man had invaded the heavens.

And one man was extremely annoyed about it.
Alexandre Charles, who had also been working on balloons - but balloons powered by hydrogen.
A big ask.
While scientific advance had permitted the manufacture of hydrogen, only small quantities had been produced -  and Monsieur Charles required one hundred cubc feet of the stuff!
He had the answer.....a barrel containing iron filings, acid and water. The gas entered the balloon and the barrel was refilled with more water and acid to keep the process running.
It took a thousand pounds of iron and some five hindred pints of sulphuric acid to fill his balloon...but it worked.
Industrial scale hydrogen.

He had also been working on the envelope of the balloon.
The Montgolfier version leaked smoke at a great rate through its paper and cloth.
Charles was lucky.
He was in Paris, not in the wastes of the Vivarais where the Montgolfier family had their paper making business.
He was not working in isolation.

He had neighbours, the brothers Robert, who had just invented a process using rubber - a wonder from the colonies - dissolving it to make fabric impermeable.
He had his balloon.

So entranced are we by the advances of our own day that we forget - if our schools ever told us - of the advances in science, both theoretical and practical, of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. I loathed science lessons at school, but if I had then known of the wonderful tale of the search for knowledge, with all its cul de sacs and winding lanes, I might have taken a lot more interest.

I would certainly have liked to be present when the semi-inflated balloon was taken from its workshops near the Palais Royale and walked - like a large flying dog - over to the testing ground on the Champ de Mars on the left bank....then almost in the countryside, among the market gardens which fed Paris.

An enclosure had been set up and no one lacking a ticket was allowed entry. Not even  Etienne Montgolfier who had come to see what his rival could do.
Nothing to do with scientific secrecy....just money.

The crowds were immense. Over one hundred thousand.
Charles and the Robert brothers were making their final preparations and at five o'clock on the twenty seventh of August 1783, their balloon rose into the air, travelling so fast that it was lost in the clouds in two minutes.
In the days when communication was at the speed of a horse and the whim of a correspondent, as far as Paris was concerned, this was the first balloon flight - even if Monsieur Charles knew better.

The crowds went home...but what of the balloon?
It had a rip in its hide, but aided by currents of air it passed over Le Bourget, giving that village a foretaste of the airport which would later come to be built there and finally came to rest in Gonesse - another glimpse of the future, when negligence gave rise to the crash of the Concorde in 2000.

It landed in the trees near the church and the population, knowing nothing of events in Paris, so close and yet of a different world, believed it to be a supernatural phenomenon and thus, in the context of the time, a spawn of the devil.

The priest was sent for, but, as the thing was still rolling and lunging at the whim of the gas inside, he could not or would not get close enough to sprinkle it with holy water.
Bolder spirits took over.
Men with guns.
At the first shot the spawn of the devil hissed so  malevolently that the entire crowd fell to the ground reciting an act of contrition, but gradually it deflated, became limp and, encouraged as always by the lack of any sign of fight, the crowd surged forward, tearing it to shreds with their pitchforks.
It took the inventors days to find the remnants.

So why are Montgolfieres Montgolfieres and not Carlines?

Because the Montgolfier brothers were the first to put passengers in the basket under their balloons..first sheep and poultry and finally men and although Monsieur Charles also managed a manned ascent - going up himself - he was gracious enough to acknowledge the priority of the Montgolfiers while they were humble enough to accept that his was the better method.

So when the round shadow crosses your patch of sunlight, say a little hello to Monsieur Charles...and put down your pitchfork.
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  1. I went to a fascinating museum of ballooning somewhere in France. I wish I could remember exactly where!

    1. I would have loved that...I went up once and - apart from the noise - it was a great experience.

    2. Jenny, I think it may have been at the Chateau de Balleroy in Calvados, which visited with the children on a long-ago gite holiday.

    3. Then I'm there next time back in Europe.

  2. Did the French invent this bladder like device for holding copious amounts of hot air? ;-)

    1. They're more renowned for letting slip a lot of hot air...but just to reassure you that laddishness is nothing new, about this time a cousin of the king was holding parties where he distributed penis shaped hydrogen balloons for the amusement of his guests who would watch them floating off into the night...

  3. I will be looking up because they do come by in Belgium also and follow your advice

    1. I always liked seeing them....and on the ground i could forget how noisy they were when in the basket.

  4. Occasionally a balloon floats over us. We'd both love to do try it one day.

  5. I knew about the Seige of Paris stories, but all the rest is new for me, fascinating stuff. My husband floated above the Valley of Kings near Luxor a couple of years ago....I watched, in awe, and fear, from the ground. He loved it.

    1. I would have loved that!

      I so enjoyed our holiday in Luxor...your comment brought back all the good memories!

      Brother in law took a balloon trip over the Tserengeti - lucky devil - he said it was wonderful as the animals were not disturbed at all.

  6. Great post. Love that sunset! Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. I used to see the balloon when it was just a bit lighter...but this looks gorgeous.

  7. The teaching of science loses a lot when all the spirit of wonder and exploration is left out.

    1. You are right...if only our teachers had thought to give some background to the subjects they were attempting to impart to us.

  8. Oohh.....I LOVE hot air balloons! I have one ambition on my bucket list that, if I win a small fortune, I will do: long ago when I was a regular visitor to East Africa, many of the hotels and safari companies used to run early morning hot air balloon trips into the Masai Mara...watching the sunrise from the air, seeing the wildlife and, finally, coming to land with a picnic champagne breakfast waiting.

    1. Brother in law did this.....but he didn't mention champagne breakfasts!

  9. A wonderful history lesson about the hot air balloon. Absolutely fascinating. My 4 years living in Cappadocia meant that I watched the balloons early every morning, sometimes as any as 50 of them, and often they would come so low across my yard I could almost touch them. I had offers of free rides many times, from friends who owned one of the balloon companies, but my fear of heights stopped me. Actually its more about being at a great height in a basket that scared me most.

    1. I wish I'd seen them when we visited Cappadocia...
      I had my doubts about going up too, but it was not at all scary. Luckily!

  10. Fascinating stuff, Fly, and I too would love to go up in a balloon. After managing not to panic in the Funchal cable car in Madeira, I think I could probably do it now (says she with fingers crossed.....)

  11. I must say that I thought the hot air balloon small beer compared to a cable car!

  12. A very interesting bit of history well told.
    I like the sight of balloons serenely floating over the countryside but ever since I saw one, including its freight of lucky recipients of birthday vouchers, land in the tops of some very high trees, I have declined to take flight myself.

  13. At our previous home we often heard and saw them; a balloon company ran champagne breakfast trips. (My terrified goats were not as impressed as I was!)