Jacques Charles and the Hydrogen Balloon

Departure of Jacques Charles and Marie-Noel Robert’s ‘aerostatic globe’ balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Departure of Jacques Charles and Marie-Noel Robert’s ‘aerostatic globe’ balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

On November 12, 1746, French inventor, scientist, mathematician, and balloonist Jacques Alexandre César Charles was born.

Charles and the Robert brothers launched the world‘s first (unmanned) hydrogen-filled balloon in August 1783. In December 1783, Charles and his co-pilot Nicolas-Louis Robert ascended to a height of about 500 metres in a manned balloon. Their pioneering use of hydrogen for lift led to this type of balloon being named a Charlière (as opposed to a Montgolfière which used hot air).

Jacques Charles was born in Beaugency-sur-Loire in 1746. Even though his first occupation was as a clerk at the Ministry of Finance in Paris, his interests eventually turned to science. It is believed that through the work of Robert Boyle‘s and Boyle‘s Law, Charles conceived the indea that hydrogen would be a suitable lifting agent for balloons. Further, contemporary scientists who influenced Charles on the matter were Henry Cavendish, Joseph Black and Tiberius Cavallo.

Charles proceded to design and craft together with the obert brothers, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis, to build it in their workshop at the Place des Victoires in Paris. The brother managed to invent the methodology for the leightweight, airtight gas bag by dissolving rubber in a solution of turpentine and varnished the sheets of silk that were stitched together to make the main envelope. They used alternate strips of red and white silk, but the discolouration of the varnishing/rubberising process left a red and yellow result.

The world’s first (known) hydrogen filled balloon was launched by Jacques Charles amd the Robert brothers on August 27, 1783, from the Champ de Mars, (today’s site of the Eiffel Tower) where Ben Franklin was among the crowd of onlookers. The balloon measured 35 cubic metre sphere of rubberised silk, and was capable of lifting circa 9 kg. It was filled with hydrogen that had been made by pouring nearly a quarter of a tonne of sulphuric acid onto a half a tonne of scrap iron. The hydrogen gas was fed into the balloon via lead pipes; but as it was not passed through cold water, great difficulty was experienced in filling the balloon completely. Daily progress bulletins were issued on the inflation; and the crowd was so great that on the 26th the balloon was moved secretly by night to the Champ de Mars, a distance of 4 kilometres. The balloon flew northwards for 45 minutes, pursued by chasers on horseback, and landed 21 kilometers away in the village of Gonesse where the reportedly terrified local peasants destroyed it with pitchforks or knives.

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