Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, 11 September 1783

From Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier

L:7 American Philosophical Society

By the second week in September, Etienne Montgolfier was ready to offer members of the Académie des sciences a preview of the balloon he had constructed.8 He had been aided in this effort by Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, the wallpaper manufacturer, who put his expertise, ingenuity, and workforce at Montgolfier’s disposal.9 As the Ministry of Finance had now assumed the expense of the experiment,1 it was arranged that the official demonstration would take place before the royal family at Versailles on September 19. The preliminary demonstration would be conducted in the courtyard of Réveillon’s wallpaper manufactory on the rue de Montreuil.

This montgolfière was substantially redesigned and elaborately decorated. Weighing 1,000 pounds and constructed of three geometric segments, it was 70 feet tall, tapered at the nose and base, and swelled to 40 feet in diameter at its midsection. Having experimented with various kinds of coatings, Montgolfier and Réveillon rejected varnishes in favor of the original concept of taffeta lined with heavy paper. This time, however, rather than lining the balloon with two layers of paper, they placed the layers on either side of the cloth. With the outer layer of paper serving as his canvas, Réveillon sent into the sky a resplendent vision of gold ornaments against an azure field. The trial they conducted on the cloudless morning of September 11 went perfectly. Montgolfier immediately issued invitations to the members of the Académie des sciences for the next morning—providing, as the present example says, that the weather continued fair.

Though Franklin returned an acceptance (the following document), there is no evidence that he attended. He would not have been the only person to stay away, given the unsettled weather.2 The day dawned overcast, with intermittent light rain. Despite black clouds on the horizon, a crowd of academicians and other distinguished guests gathered in Réveillon’s courtyard. The balloon filled magnificently, but strong winds and heavy rain arrived just as it began to ascend, carrying 500 pounds of weight. As Montgolfier and his assistants wrestled it back down, strips of waterlogged paper began detaching from the fabric. The members of the commission who were present wrote an encouraging procès-verbal on the spot, emphasizing that the failure of the experiment did not stem from defects in the invention itself.3

Ce Jeudy 11. 7bre. [1783]


M. De Montgolfier a l’honneur de vous prévenir que si le tems continue à être favorable, il se propose de faire demain vendredy entre huit et dix heures du matin rue de Montreuil, l’expérience de sa machine aerostatique, vous priant de vous rendre de bonne heure, la matinée etant le moment le plus convenable.

Addressed: A Monsieur / Monsieur Francklin / Ministre Plenipotentiaire / des Etats Unis de Lamerique / A Passy

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7This generic invitation is in a secretarial hand. The address appears to have been written by Montgolfier.

8The information in this headnote is from Gillispie, Montgolfier Brothers, pp. 36–9; Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier … (Paris, 1783), pp. 29–35.

9Another important collaborator was the chemist and physicist Ami Argand. While working on the balloon, Argand was also honing his own invention, an improved oil lamp: John J. Wolfe, Brandy, Balloons, & Lamps: Ami Argand, 1750–1803 (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1999), pp. 2–7.

1They did so when it became clear that the Académie des sciences would be overburdened.

2According to press reports, several invited guests and certain commissioners from the Académie des sciences did not attend, persuaded that “le temps étoit trop mauvais pour risquer d’elever en l’air cette grande machine”: Gaz. de Leyde, Sept. 23, 1783 (sup.); Mercure de France (Jour. politique de Bruxelles) for Sept. 27, 1783, pp. 175–6. Le Roy must not have gone, as he did not sign the procès-verbal.

3The procès-verbal was signed by Cadet, Bossut, Brisson, Lavoisier, and Desmarest: Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description, pp. 35–6.

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