Francois Pilatre de Rozier (baptized 30 March 1754 in Metz, died 15 June 1785 in
Wimereux/Pas-de-Calais) was a French chemistry and physics teacher, and one of the
first pioneers of aviation. He was one of the first two men ever to leave the earth
in a flying machine, and he was the first man to be killed in an aviation accident.
The son of an innkeeper, De Rozier botanized in the company of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld,
in the democratic companionship that early science fostered. His interests in the
chemistry of drugs had been awakened in the military hospital of Metz, an important
garrison town on the border of France. He made his way to Paris, then taught physics
and chemistry at Reims, which brought him to the attention of the king's brother,
Monsieur, the Comte d'Artois, who put him in charge of his cabinet of natural history
and made him a valet de chambre to Madame, which brought him his ennobled name, Pilatre
de Rozier. Soon, however, he opened his own museum in the Marais quarter of Paris,
researched the new field of gases and invented a respirator.
In 1782 Joseph Michel Montgolfier and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, two brothers from
Annonay, France, constructed an air balloon that was lifted by lighting a cauldron
of paper beneath it, and therefore heating and rarifying the air it contained. They
had conceived this idea in one of those strange creative flashes that seem to pepper
the history of the White race. By watching a small paper bag which had fallen into
the fire fill with hot air, rise, and float in the air over the flames, the Montgolfiers
had suddenly wondered if such a bag could be made large enough to carry a human being
into the sky. Amazingly, in all the thousands of years man had been using fire as
an essential tool, no one else had ever realized that smoke and heat go UP and that
this might be a powerful enough force to take a man up as well. One supposed that
certain ideas simply have their time.
On 4th June, 1783, this hot air balloon reached a height of about 6,560 feet (2,000
meters) flying as a captive balloon, i.e. tethered to a long cable so the Montgolfiers
could bring it back down. It carried aloft a rooster, a dog, and a cat, in separate
wicker baskets, rather like the first space shots carried dogs and monkeys. De Rozier
was present. That September the Montgolfiers sent aloft from the front courtyard
of Versailles, the first un-tethered balloon, containing a sheep, a cockerel and
a duck, who made a flight of several miles before coming safely to earth.
It was proposed that a gondola be built under the balloon to carry a man, and there
arose some debate as to who should be the first human being carried into the air
by a manmade device. Many scientists of the day thought that the air even a few thousand
feet up was too thin to sustain life or else was poisonous. King Louis XVI proposed
sending a condemned criminal aloft, with the promise of pardon if he survived.
However, Pilatre de Rozier stepped forward and objected, saying that the honor of
being the first man to fly should not be given to a criminal. De Rozier and the Marquis
d'Arlandes became the first people to take part in a manned balloon flight. On 21
November 1783 the two of them made the first manned free flight in history. During
the 25-minute flight using a Montgolfier hot air balloon heated by burning straw
and coal, they traveled 12 kilometers from the chateau of La Muette to the Butte
aux Cailles in the outskirts of Paris, attaining an altitude of 3,000 feet. On flying
over the river Seine, they became the first to notice something that all pilots would
later be taught—that there is a downdraft over water.
They both became very famous and were received at court. Benjamin Franklin observed
their flight, and on being asked "But what good is it?" replied, "What good is a
One obvious problem with the Montgolfier design was that these balloons were almost
impossible to control, not only impossible to steer, but to control the ascent and
descent. Professor Charles of the Paris Academy of Sciences made a successful hydrogen
balloon, which he sent up unmanned and which was slashed to pieces by peasants with
pitchforks and reaping hooks when it landed in a field. (They thought it was the
Devil.) Hydrogen did not require the constant feeding of wood or other flammables
into the burner.
Pilatre de Rozier now decided to make his own balloon that contained both hot air
and hydrogen. He placed a hydrogen balloon on top, which provided a steady lift,
and a hot air balloon on the bottom, which could be heated and cooled by placing
faggots of tarred, burning straw in a brazier and thus provide some control over
the up-and-down capabilities of the aircraft. This actually wasn't a bad idea, except
for the fact that hydrogen is highly explosive.
On 15th June, 1785, Rozier and a friend, Pierre Romain, decided to fly from Boulogne
to England. At an altitude of about 2,950 feet (900 m) the hydrogen, expanded by
the hot air, exploded and the two men were fell to their death. Their horrified friends
ran to the gondola; de Rozier was still barely alive and managed to gasp out a prayer
as a priest recited the last rites before he expired. They were the first men to
lose their lives in a manned flight.
The modern hybrid gas and hot air balloon is named the Rozier balloon after his pioneering