The Montgolfier Brothers: Despite their initial failures, never gave up - Eva Varga

January 1, 2016

Each month, I like to share a post celebrating the accomplishments of a scientist whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives. To honor the work of these amazing people, I provide a little peak into their life and share an unschool-style learning guides or unit study to guide you and your children on a path of discovery.

This month, I chose to honor the Montgolfier brothers who, born in Annonay, France, were the inventors of the first practical balloon.  Modifications and improvements of the basic Montgolfier design were incorporated in the construction of larger balloons that, in later years, opened the way to exploration of the upper atmosphere.

Discover how Alfred Wegener later pioneered the use of balloons in meteorology (weather patterns).

Science Milestones: The Montgolfier Brothers @EvaVarga.netWhile watching a fire in his fireplace, Joseph became interested in the “force” that caused the sparks and smoke to rise. He made a small bag out of silk and lit a fire under the opening at the bottom causing it to rise. The brothers thought the burning created a gas which they called “Montgolfier gas”. They didn’t realize that their balloons rose because the heated air inside was lighter than the surrounding air.

The brothers were inspired by the clouds and dreamed of floating amongst them. Joseph first experimented with filling a paper bag with steam. Etienne attempted to make a paper bag float with hydrogen gas obtained from sulphuric acid and iron filings. Though both were unsuccessful with these initial attempts, they did not give in.


Science Milestones: The Montgolfier Brothers @EvaVarga.netJoseph-Michel Montgolfier (26 August 1740 – 26 June 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (6 January 1745 – 2 August 1799) were two of the sixteen children of Pierre Montgolfier, whose prosperous paper factories in the small town of Vidalon, near Annonay in southern France, ensured the financial support of their balloon experiments. While carrying on their father’s paper business, they maintained their interest in scientific experimentation.

In 1782 they discovered that heated air, when collected inside a lightweight paper or fabric bag, caused the bag to rise into the air. The Montgolfiers made the first public demonstration of this discovery on June 4, 1783, at the marketplace in Annonay. They filled their balloon with heated air by burning straw and wool under the opening at the bottom of the bag. The balloon rose into the air about 3,000 feet (1,000 metres), remained there some 10 minutes, and then settled to the ground more than a mile and a half from where it rose.

The Montgolfiers traveled to Paris and then to Versailles, where they repeated the experiment with a larger globe aérostatique on Sept. 19, 1783, sending a sheep, a rooster, and a duck aloft as passengers. The balloon floated for about 8 minutes and landed safely about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) from the launch site. Continuing on the brothers later succeeded in launching the first piloted ascent, carrying Étienne into the sky.

The first free (non tethered) human flight took place in a Montgolfier designed balloon on November 21, 1783, with science teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes as passengers. The flight began from the grounds of the Château de la Muette in the western outskirts of Paris. They flew aloft about 3,000 feet (910 m) above Paris for a distance of about 5.6 miles (9 km). After 25 minutes, the balloon landed outside the city ramparts on the Butte-aux-Cailles.

In December 1783, in recognition of their achievement, their father Pierre was elevated to the nobility and the hereditary appellation of de Montgolfier by King Louis XVI of France. The two brothers were honored by the French Académie des Sciences. They published books on aeronautics and continued their scientific careers. Joseph invented a calorimeter and the hydraulic ram, and Étienne developed a process for manufacturing vellum.

Later, in December 1783, in recognition of their achievement, their father Pierre was elevated to the nobility and the hereditary appellation of de Montgolfier by King Louis XVI of France.

Science Milestones: The Montgolfier Brothers
Montgolfier Brothers Art Print by PrintLand (Etsy)

Bring it Home 

Watch a short documentary, Hot Air Balloon: Montgolfier Brothers on YouTube

Math with Montgolfier pdf from the National Museum of the US Air Force

Sonic Junior Balloonist lesson plan pdf

Color your own paper model of a Montgolfier balloon with this printable from the Balloon Explorium

Learn How Hot Air Balloons Work and have students create a timeline not of hot air ballooning (which in itself is fascinating) but of the inventions that contributed to the introduction of the activity—in other words they are looking at the history of the science of hot air ballooning.   

Discover how Alfred Wegener later pioneered the use of balloons in meteorology (weather patterns).

For the artist, consider creating a unique upscaled art print featuring the Montgolfier brothers (example shown above)

Science Milestones

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

Interested in learning about others who were born in the month of January? Hop over to Birthday Lessons in January to read posts by other iHomeschool Network bloggers.

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