Skip to content

By Jane Insley on

"The Whole World Is Full Of These Flying Balls"

From November 1782, James Watt and his friends were excited by the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments with hot air balloons.

Watt wrote to Dr Joseph Black in 1783 that “The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls at present”.

In August 1783 the Frenchman J A C Charles and two brothers called Robert substituted hydrogen, or“inflammable air”, for hot air. Alarmed locals pitchforked their balloon where it landed.

Pitchforking the alien © Science Museum / Science & Society

In December Charles and one Robert brother set off on their first manned flight, using hydrogen made by passing steam over hot iron.

Launch site of hydrogen balloon December 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

They went up

The balloon rising Dec 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

And up

The balloon rose further Science Museum / Science & Society

And up even more.

The balloon rose even further Science Museum / Science & Society

Before touching ground again on the property of an interested landowner who was intrigued by his sudden visitors arriving in such a novel manner.

First touch down Science Museum / Science & Society

Robert  hopped out to explain what they were up to, whereupon the balloon took off again with Charles still aboard. This time he was taken so high he had an almost religious experience (probably along the lines of “I swear if I get down from up here in one piece, I’ll never do it again”).  

The balloon and its pilot were loaded on to a wagon and returned to Paris, closing a dramatic chapter in the early history of aeronautics.

Triumphant return to Paris © Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s partner Matthew Boulton experimented with thin copper, along the way managing to make one of his test balloons explode in mid air. 

It wasn’t really their thing, and Watt wrote to another friend in October 1794

“Mr Boulton did idle a great deal of his time in playing with some small balloons some time ago but I hope he is now cured of the balloonomania” .