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Word of Mouth - The hot air ballooning heroes of 1783

Word of Mouth // Education // Jan. 24, 2017

Today Garry Littman takes a look at hot air balloons. 


In French, the word for a hot air balloon is not ballon (balloon) air chaud (hot air). No, it’s Mongolfier – the family name of two French brothers who pioneered balloon flight in the 18th century. 

Joseph-Michael and Jacques Etienne came from a wealthy family of paper manufacturers in Anonay in Ardeche. Young Joseph had a hot air epiphany while watching laundry billowing and rising over hot smoke from a fire. Joseph surmised that the smoke contained a special gas, which he rather modestly named Montgolfier Gas, and this gas he further surmised had a special property he named levity. 

The brothers built a 10 metre diameter balloon and launched it - with no passengers - from the marketplace of Anonay on June 4, 1783. The balloon rose 1500 metres, stayed afloat for 10 minutes and travelled two kilometres. Overnight they became heroes and ballooning became a national sensation.

The next step was passenger flight. King Louis 16th – now an avid balloon enthusiast like the rest of a France - proposed using prisoners. The inventors finally chose a wonderful barnyard trio – a sheep called Montauciel ("Climb-to-the-sky"), a duck and the nation’s emblematic bird - a rooster. But why choose a balloon crew from old McDonald’s farm? Garry explains...

Listen to more episodes of Word of Mouth from Garry Littman anytime here

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