Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Banks, 8 October 1783

To Joseph Banks

LS:6 Royal Society; AL (draft): University of Pennsylvania Library; press copy of LS: Massachusetts Historical Society; copy: Library of Congress

After heavy winds and rain had marred the demonstration of his hotair balloon at the Réveillon manufactory on September 12,7 Etienne Montgolfier and his collaborators had just one week to prepare a new balloon to be launched before the royal family at Versailles. The new vessel was somewhat smaller than its predecessor (57 feet tall and 41 feet in diameter), and its taffeta bag was coated with varnish rather than lined with paper. The most spectacular innovation was that the balloon would lift a wicker cage containing the first three aeronauts, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The balloon was completed with just enough time left for one successful trial before it was transported to Versailles, where an octagonal stage had been erected for the launch in the palace courtyard. On September 19 at one o’clock, after the royal family inspected the balloon and listened to Montgolfier’s explanation of the experiment, the burner underneath the stage was lighted, fueled by damp straw and shredded wool. The balloon, which had been spread out over the stage, slowly took shape and rose before a large crowd of spectators. After it left the ground, a gust of wind almost caused the balloon to capsize, and the resultant loss of hot air meant that it rose to a height of only about 1,500 feet and traveled about two miles in eight minutes, before landing in the woods of Vaucresson. Although there were reports that the rooster had broken its head in the fall,8 these were vehemently denied by Faujas de Saint-Fond, who assured the public that the rooster suffered only a scratch on his wing, inflicted by the hoof of the sheep before takeoff.9

Passy, Oct: 8. 1783.


The Publick were promised a printed particular Account of the Rise and Progress of the Balloon Invention, to be published about the End of last month.1 I waited for it to send it to you, expecting it would be more satisfactory than any thing I could write; but it does not appear. We have only at present the enclosed Pamphlet, which does not answer the expectation given us. I send you with it some prints.2 That of the Balloon raised at Versailles is said to be an exact representation. I was not present, but am told it was filled in about ten minutes by means of burning Straw. Some say Water was thrown into the flame, others that it was Spirits of Sal Volatile. It was supposed to have risen about 200 Toises: But did not continue long at that height, was carried horizontally by the Wind, and descended gently as the Air within grew cooler— So vast a Bulk when it began to rise so majestically in the air, struck the spectators with surprize and Admiration. The Basket contained a sheep, a duck, and a Cock, who, except the Cock, received no hurt by the Fall.

The Duke de Crillon made a feast last week in the Bois de Boulogne just by my habitation, on Occasion of the Birth of two Spanish Princes;3 after the Fireworks we had a Balloon of about 5 feet Diameter filled with permanent inflammable Air. It was dismissed about One a Clock in the Morning. It carried under it a large Lanthorn with inscriptions on its sides. The Night was quite calm and clear, so that it went right up. The appearance of the light diminished gradually till it appeared no bigger than one of the Stars, and in about twenty minutes I lost sight of it entirely. It fell the next Day on the other side of the same Wood near the Village Boulogne, about half after twelve, having been suspended in the Air eleven hours and a half. It lodged in a tree, and was torn in getting it down; so that it cannot be ascertained whether it burst when above, or not, tho’ that is supposed. Smaller Repetitions of the Experiment are making every day in all quarters. Some of the larger Balloons that have been up are preparing to be sent up again in a few Days; but I do not hear of any material improvements yet made either in the mechanical or Chemical parts of the Operation. Most is expected from the new one undertaken upon subscription by Messieurs Charles and Robert, who are Men of Science and mechanic Dexterity. It is to carry up a Man. I send you enclosed the Proposals, which it is said are already subscribed to by a considerable number, and likely to be carried into execution.4 If I am well at the Time, I purpose to be present, being a subscriber myself, and shall send you an exact Account of Particulars.

With great esteem and respect, for yourself and the Society; I have the honour to be, Sir, Your most obedient & most humble Servant,

B Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6Written, we believe, by BFB. BF added the last seven words of the complimentary close before signing.

7See XL, 609–10.

8E.g., in Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, XXIII (1783), 162–3, and the Mercure de France (Jour. politique de Bruxelles) for Sept. 27, 1783, pp. 177–8.

9Gillispie, Montgolfier Brothers, pp. 39–43; Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier … (Paris, 173), pp. 36–48.

1In the Jour. de Paris of Sept. 18, Faujas de Saint-Fond announced that an account of all balloon experiments, including Montgolfier’s upcoming demonstration at Versailles, would be published at the end of the month. His Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique did not appear until late November; see BF to Banks, Nov. 21 [i.e., 22–25].

2The pamphlet may have been the anonymous Considérations sur le globe aérostatique, par M. D … (Paris, 1783), which was approved for publication by Lenoir on Sept. 17 and advertised in the Jour. de Paris on Oct. 10. The “book and prints” were forwarded to Banks by Edward Nairne, who received them from Ami Argand: Nairne to BF, Dec. 2.

3See the letter from the duc and duchesse de Crillon, [before Oct. 1].

4The enclosure has not been found. The copy of the present letter at the Library of Congress, in the hand of Charles Blagden, includes a section marked “Extract of the Proposals”: the new balloon will be made of gummed silk, 26 feet in diameter, and launched sometime in November. One hundred subscribers are needed at 4 louis apiece; this sum will entitle them to watch the ascension from a special enclosed viewing area, and they will each receive 30 tickets to distribute for admission to another enclosed area. If the subscription is not filled by Oct. 20, all money will be refunded.

According to the Robert brothers’ letter in the Nov. 19 Jour. de Paris, it had been six weeks since they announced their subscription (i.e., they advertised it around Oct. 8). By Nov. 19 they had received subscriptions from only “quelques amis,” not nearly enough to cover the balloon’s estimated cost of 10,000 l.t. While preserving the privileges of the subscribers, they were now offering “amateurs” the opportunity to buy pairs of tickets for 6 l.t.

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