The first hot-air balloons drew huge crowds, inspiring onlookers to cry, laugh, even faint. One witness wrote, “Since these exhibitions, there seems to prevail a kind of aerial phrenzy among us. The term ‘balloon’ is not only in the mouth of everyone, but all our world seems to be in the clouds.” For some, the new invention was the culmination of Enlightenment science, the pinnacle of human ingenuity. Grand schemes abounded: using balloons to carry mail, to improve cartography, to bombard enemy fortifications. Then, almost overnight, the fervor subsided as everyone sobered to the fact that these vehicles, which couldn’t be steered, were largely useless.
Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies. The upward lift mimics the feeling of ideas drifting into the mind. The haphazard flight path suggests the possibility of being whisked to some faraway world—to Oz, for instance. But today, people are far less likely to have ridden in a balloon than to have read about one in fiction.
The weather was propitious on November 21, 1783, when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes climbed aboard a smoke-filled balloon and rose into the air over a growing Parisian crowd. The two Frenchmen forked straw into the burner and marveled at the scene underneath. Benjamin Franklin observed the flight from his terrace: a beautiful, blue-and-gold ovoid, like a giant Fabergé egg, floating above the Seine. As Franklin recollected, “Someone asked me, ‘What’s the use of a balloon?’ I replied, ‘What’s the use of a newborn baby?’”