100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Lighter-Than-Air Flight
Year of Invention: 1783

What Is It? Right in ships that rise by being lighter than the surrounding air.

Who Invented It? Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier (in Paris, France)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Flight has forever thrilled the human imagination. Lighter-than-air flight was the first successful human flight. The first time a human was able to rise above the ground and shed the bonds of gravity was in a hot air balloon. The second human flight used a hydrogen-filled balloon. Flight went on to airplanes, rockets, and space travel. But it began with lighter-than-air balloons.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

All early attempts at flight mimicked birds. People built wing-like devices that were strapped onto human arms and flapped—always into failure. Even the great Galileo designed his aeroplane with bird-like wings and mechanical gears to flap the monstrous and feathered appendages. Scientists assumed that, if wings made birds fly, then wings were also what should be used to make people fly.

It is both odd and fascinating that, throughout 5,000 years of recorded history, no one thought of hot air balloon flight. The technology to build an adequate balloon and to produce hot air had been around for millennia. Certainly people were aware that hot gasses rose from a fire and lifted into the air. It seems that, for thousands of years, the idea simply never occurred to anyone.


How Was Lighter-Than-Air Flight Invented?

In 1766, English scientist Henry Cavendish isolated a new colorless, gaseous element: hydrogen. He said hydrogen had “negative weight” since it rose up into the air and proposed that it could be used to lift objects from the earth. But he never pursued the idea.

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier (sons of a wealthy paper merchant) lived on the outskirts of Paris. In 1782 the brothers read about Cavendish’s work and hypothesized that whatever Cavendish found in his hydrogen must also be present in the smoky air rising from a fire. That smoky air surely had “negative weight” and carried ashes up into the sky.

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