The UAV of 1783

In the late summer of 1783, the first controlled unmanned flight in recorded history was undertaken on a gold-embroidered hot air balloon in front of the royal elite of France. But while it may have been unmanned, it was not unducked.

While we at Skyward believe that drones are poised to radically disrupt business and technology, let’s be clear: the unmanned aircraft industry did not kick off with a bang. Rather, it began with a jumble of animal noises and the stench of burning horse manure.

The Montgolfier brothers, a pair of wealthy paper manufacturers, were the French architects of the first known unmanned balloon flight in 1783. Joseph-Michel, the elder of the two, had begun mulling over the idea of flying vehicles at least a year prior to their first attempt—he observed that laundry drying over a fire tended to form pockets of air, which billowed upward and lifted the fabric of the clothes. France, at the time, was considering an assault on the British military base of Gibraltar, which had proved unyielding to attacks from the land and sea. Could French troops be lifted, Joseph wondered, by a contraption harnessing the same force that lifted pockets of air through his laundry?

Joseph got to work. Recruiting his brother Jacques-Étienne to assist him (“Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights of the world,” Joseph wrote in a letter), and funding the project with money from the family paper business, the first balloon was completed by late 1782. On its very first test flight, the lifting force of the hot air—generated by the burning of straw, chopped wool, and dried horse manure—was so great that the brothers lost control; upon landing over a mile away, the balloon was destroyed by a band of peasants who believed it was the moon falling from the sky.

By then, of course, the brothers realized that they had stumbled upon something incredible. To stake their claim on the invention, they decided to organize a public demonstration. Their first demonstration, held in Annonay, received widespread acclaim, and they were invited to fly their contraption in Versailles before a larger audience, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In lieu of concern over whether rapidly ascending to high altitude would have an adverse effect on health, King Louis XVI graciously offered to send some prisoners; the brothers, however, opted to use animals. Specifically, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The sheep was believed to possess a physiology similar to that of humans, and the two birds—one high-flying and the other low-flying—were used as controls.

And so, in September of 1783, using the same combination of straw, wool, and horse manure, the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon was launched. It rose some 1,500 feet into the air, flew for about eight minutes, and successfully landed two miles from the launch site. Two months afterward, the brothers flew an untethered manned demonstration in Paris.

232 years later, the drone industry of today is continuing the Montgolfier tradition of vision, experimentation, and audacity. Still, the brothers recognized that safety was of paramount importance—it was not clear whether altitude had unknown effects on human physiology, so animals were used in their Versailles demonstration to avoid unnecessary risk. As we work toward cultivating a new era of aerial innovation, we should remember how Joseph and Jacque flew the world’s first unmanned aircraft using a balance of boldness and prudence. Only through this balance can we hope to build a safe and responsible airspace.