Smithsonian recalls 1st manned (balloon) flight
Washington — The Marquis d'Arlandes had the right stuff. So did his friend, Pilatre de Rozier. The two Frenchmen were the first humans to fly, when they took off on Nov. 21, 1783, in a hot-air balloon from the garden of the Chateau de Muette in Paris.
The right stuff, for the late 18th century, meant having the courage to climb into a fragile 70-foot-tall contraption made out of linen and varnished paper, powered by air heated in a brazier fed with straw. And it meant staying in it for 25 minutes, while it soared 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the Paris rooftops, until it touched down five miles away.
The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum is tipping its tricorn to this 200th anniversary of manned flight with a buoyant new exhibit on hot-air ballooning. It celebrates the feats of, among others, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, the brothers who invented the hot-air balloon and constructed that first manned-flight balloon, with a bow to King Louis XVI.
A quarter-scale reproduction of the de Rozier balloon floats in midair at the museum like some big, beautiful toy: a French blue linen globe decorated in gold with the king's initials, signs of the zodiac, lions' heads, and red swags. On Sept. 19, 1783, two months before the de Rozier flight, Etienne Montgolfier had sent up an unmanned balloon at Versailles for King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette's pleasure.
The exhibit is titled ''Dr. Franklin's Window: American Witness to the Birth of Flight'' because Benjamin Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, was in Paris in 1784 to sign the Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolution. Franklin, looking out the window of his Paris hotel, had a superb view of the balloon flights and sent back excited reports about them.
He also wrote prophetically to a friend: ''It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new experiment which apparently increases the power of man over matter till we can see to what use that power may be applied.''
The exhibit begins with a life-size plaster statue of Franklin, courtly in brown-wool knee breeches, frock coat, and buckled shoes, gazing over his balcony at ''a flying globe,'' as he called the balloons. One of them was the first hydrogen balloon, constructed by Prof. Jacques A.C. Charles. He and his brother Robert, cradled in what looked like a red velvet sled under their taffeta balloon, flew the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon, lifting up from the Tuileries Gardens and flying 27 miles.
The thrill of flight made Paris giddy that year and well into the '90s. ''Aeronauts'' were the heroes of the day, and ''globe aerostatiques'' the inspiration for balloon motifs on everything from fashions to furniture: huge skirts with balloon panels and sleeves, balloon fans, powder boxes, chandeliers, needlepoint chairs, commodes, mirrors. The exhibit includes a collection of balloon prints, medallions, and even a Balloon Room.
At the same time, the museum has just opened a new multimedia show titled ''Flight - It was the Dream of the Ages,'' which begins with the historic de Rozier balloon flight and complements the exhibit. As it begins, the audience sits back in seats tilted like deck chairs, looking up at a creamy balloon covering the ceiling above them, then is whisked off into clouds and stars in what approximates a 3-D hot-air balloon flight. And the rest of ''The Oldest Dream,'' which runs eight times daily, is the best movie in town, at $1 for adults, 50 cents for children.