1902 Encyclopedia > Aeronautics > Remarks on Discovery of the Balloon. Dr Black's Experiments. Cavallo: Inflated Soap Bubbles With Hydrogen Gas (1782).

(Part 12)

Remarks on Discovery of the Balloon. Dr Black's Experiments. Cavallo: Inflated Soap Bubbles With Hydrogen Gas (1782).

The improvements that have been made in the management and inflation of balloons in the last ninety years have only had reference to details, so that as far as essential principles are concerned the subject is now in pretty much the same state as it was in 1783. We have therefore arrived at a point in the history of the balloon where it is well to consider how much the Montgolfiers and Charles owed to their predecessors; and it is proper here to state that, although we have assigned the invention to the two brothers, Stephen and Joseph -- as no doubt they both conducted the early experiment together -- still there is reason to believe that the share of the latter was very small. Stephen, however, although the originator of balloons, does not appear ever to have ascended himself, and Joseph did not repeat the ascent just mentioned in the Flesselles. The Montgolfiers had studied Priestley's experiments relating to different kinds of Air, whence they first conceived the possibility of navigating the atmosphere; but their experiment was so simple as to require scarcely any philosophical knowledge. They had seen smoke ascend, and thought that if they could imprison it in a bag, the bag might ascend too; and the observation and reasoning were both such as might occur to anybody. This does not detract from their merit; it, on the contrary, adds to it. The fact that millions of persons must have observed the same thing, and had not derived anything practical there from, only enhances the glory of those who in such well-worn tracts did make a discovery; but the simplicity of the invention shows that it is needless to inquire whence the brothers were led to make it, and how far any part of the credit is due to their predecessors. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more remarkable than that the fact that a light bag held over a fire would ascend into the air was not discovered till 1788, notwithstanding that men in all ages had seen smoke ascend from fire (though, of course, the fire-balloon does not ascent for exactly the same reason that smoke does). It might be supposed that the connection of the Montgolfiers with a paper manufactory gave them facilities for constructing their experimental balloons of thin paper; and perhaps such was the case, although we can find no evidence of it.

With regard to Charles's substitution of hydrogen gas, there are anticipations that must be noticed. As early as 1766 Cavendish showed that this gas was at least seven times lighter than ordinary air, and it immediately occurred to Dr. Black, of Edinburgh well known as the discovered of latent heat, that a thin bag filled with hydrogen gas would rise to the ceiling of a room. He provided, accordingly, the allantois of a claf, with the view of showing at a public lecture such a curious experiment; but for some reason it seems to have failed, and Black did not repeat it, thus allowing a great discovery, almost within his reach, to escape him.

Several years afterwards a similar idea occurred to Tiberius Cavallo, who found that bladders, even when carefully scraped, are too heavy, and that China paper is permeable to the gas. But in 1782, the year before the invention of the Montgolfiers, he succeeded in elevating soap-bubbles by inflating them with hydrogen gas. The discovery fire-balloons might have taken place almost at any time in the world's history, but the substitution of hydrogen gas for heated air could not have been made previously to the latter half of the last century; and although all the honour of an independent discovery belongs to the Montgolfiers, Charles, by his substitution of "inflammable air" for heated air, merely showed himself acquainted with the state of chemical science of his day. Charles never again ascended after his double expedition on the 1st of December 1783.

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