How Polish Hot-Air Ballooning Got off the Ground: A Tale of 18th Century Innovation
#technology & innovation
default, Graphic showing the flight of a Montgolfier brothers-designed balloon carrying animals on 19th September 1783, photo: National Digital Library Polona, center, #000000, grafika_przedstawiajaca_lot_balonu_montgolfiera_ze_zwierzetami_z_19_wrzesnia_1783_roku.jpg
In the 1780s, inspired by French developments in the field of ballooning, Poland became the arena of some of the most significant hot-air balloon experiments in Europe. Culture.pl takes a look at the most memorable episodes of this exciting era of Polish balloon innovation.
Along the way we’ll encounter the first-ever launch of a Polish balloon, the first journey of a Pole through the air in one and Filuś the cat, whose ballooning experience was described by the well-known poet Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin. There’s all this and more… Up and away we go!
Flying isn’t impossible
Following developments in gas science and the enthusiasm for reason in the Enlightenment, the end of the 18th century saw an unprecedented surge of hot-air balloon experiments in Europe. France was at the forefront of this new craze; in 1783, a number of trials with hot air and gas balloons were conducted there. Eventually, on 21st November that year, the first untethered manned balloon flight occurred in Paris. A hot-air balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers from silk and paper carried two pilots, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent, over a distance of about 9 kilometres, reaching an altitude of 150 metres. This event is considered to be the first instance of a successful manned flight and was definitely a breakthrough at the time.
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Interestingly, long before the aforementioned flight occurred, a Polish-Italian inventor by the name of Tytus Liwiusz Burattini suggested the creation of flying balloons:
One of the precursors of aviation in Poland was Tytus Liwiusz Burattini, a Polish inventor of Italian origin and author of the treatise ‘Flying Isn’t Impossible, Contrary to What We’ve Believed So Far’ published around 1637, in which he proposed filling balloons with a lighter-than-air gas; in the years 1647-1648 he conducted a few flight ‘experiments’.
From ‘100 Lat Lotnictwa w Polsce’, a 2018 bulletin by Poland’s Civil Aviation Authority, trans. MK
It’s worth adding that apart from discussing flying balloons, Burattini also considered constructing a flying craft in the shape of… a dragon. This unusual craft was to be made of wood and fabric, and propelled by the muscle strength of the pilot, transferred to eight wings. In the end, this machine was never built, but a small model of it is said to have been constructed. Apparently, the model was used for the experiments mentioned in the above quote.
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In 1784, over a century after the publication of Burattini’s book, Poles finally began to experiment with hot-air and gas balloons. The impulse for this didn’t, however, come from Flying Isn’t Impossible but from the then-recent achievements in the field of ballooning made in France. In the year following Rozier and Laurent’s flight, the balloon craze reached Poland, where it became highly popular. It is believed that in the 1780s, Poland was second only to France when it came to the amount and quality of various balloon experiments (early ballooning trials were also conducted in England, Italy and the Netherlands). Below, we’ll discuss three key Polish episodes from this exciting era of balloon innovation.
The first Polish experiment with a hot air balloon took place on 17th January 1784 in Kraków. Four professors of the local Jagellonian University – mathematician and astronomer Jan Śniadecki, physicist and chemist Jan Jaśkiewicz, physician Jan Szaster and physicist Franciszek Scheidt – tried to launch an unmanned balloon from a courtyard in 6 Św. Anny Street. During this trial, they filled their balloon with smoke rather than clean hot air – repeating the method used in the earliest experiments of the Montgolfier brothers. Initially, the French siblings believed that smoke, not just hot air, should be used to make a balloon float. They came to this conclusion after they saw embers rising from burning paper (eventually, though, they gravitated toward using hot air in their balloons).
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As smoke isn’t the best buoyant agent for a balloon, the experiment of the four professors ended with only partial success – their balloon rose off the ground only slightly. Here’s how Jan Śniadecki describes this in his booklet Opisanie Doświadczenia Czynionego z Banią Powietrzną w Krakowie Dnia 1 Kwietnia Roku 1784, Puszczoną z Ogrodu Botanicznego na Wesołej (Description of an Experiment Conducted in Kraków on 1st April 1784 on a Balloon Launched from the Botanical Garden in Wesoła), in which he also discusses his later ballooning trials:
We used damp hay, producing plenty of smoke to fill the air machine, which had the shape of a triangular pyramid; the fire, maintained for a long time, caused the machine to spring up, but didn’t raise it high.
The first successful Polish ballooning experiment followed shortly afterward. On 12th February 1784, the royal chemist and mineralogist Stanisław Okraszewski launched a hydrogen-filled balloon in Warsaw. Amongst the numerous witnesses of this notable event was Poland’s King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Okraszewski’s balloon was made from an animal bladder and measured 94 centimetres in diameter. It was attached to a line and rose about 180 metres above the ground. It remained airborne for three minutes, and after that, it was transported into one of the rooms in Warsaw’s Royal Castle, where it kept hovering for about an hour. After Okraszewski’s success, further experiments with unmanned balloons followed in places like Lviv, Kamieniec Podolski and Pińczów.
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Filuś the cat
The year 1784 saw another important episode in the history of Polish ballooning. That year a group of Polish noblemen led by Duchess Maria Anna Czartoryska decided to build their own hot-air balloon at the Czartoryski Palace in Puławy. The aerostat was constructed under the supervision of the Swiss mathematician Simon L’Huillier, and various members of the group carried out specific tasks leading to its creation. For example, Duke Adam Czartoryski cut out the elements comprising the envelope (the bag containing the hot air) from paper, and Aleksandra Narbutt covered it with various paints.
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The launch of the balloon took place in the spring, on the banks of the River Wisła nearby the palace, attracting a large crowd of curious spectators. The aerostat was filled with hot air transferred from above a fireplace via a pipe, and before it took off, a passenger was placed in its basket. That passenger was a cat by the name of Filuś. After the balloon rose into the air, Filuś became the first living creature in Poland to travel in a hot-air balloon.
Unfortunately for the animal, its glory was short-lived. The balloon crashed into a tree and burned down, killing the cat. The whole affair was described by the well-known poet and playwright Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin – who himself was a member of the balloon-making group – in his poem Balon (Balloon). Here’s an excerpt from that piece of verse published in 1787:
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Of no help were the scents and charms
With greater strength charged the wind
Hit by it, the balloon twisted and charred
A dry ash tore Filuś apart…
Apart from being commemorated in the aforementioned poem, Filuś is also described in a Polish Wikipedia article devoted solely to him. Even though this article isn’t entirely accurate, it goes to show the importance of this cat who became Poland’s first animal aeronaut.
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18th century engraving showing Jean Pierre Blanchard crossing the English Channel in a balloon on 7th January 1785, photo: Wikipedia.org
For its first human aeronaut, Poland had to wait until the year 1789. That’s when the experienced French balloon pilot Jean Pierre Blanchard visited Warsaw – who by then had already crossed the English channel in a balloon. Blanchard performed the first-ever manned flight of a balloon on Polish soil on 10th May 1789. On that day. he flew in his hydrogen-filled balloon from Warsaw’s Vauxhall garden (today’s Foksal Street) to the village of Białołęka, which now is one of the capital’s districts. The flight of Blanchard’s aerostat, measuring about 17 metres in diameter, was observed by plenty of spectators, including King Stanisław August Poniatowski.
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Amongst the onlookers as well was writer Jan Potocki, who would go on to publish his celebrated frame-tale novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1805. Potocki became so enchanted by Blanchard’s feat that he approached the Frenchman and asked him if he could go aboard one of his flights. Blanchard agreed but also asked for Potocki’s help in the creation of a new hot-air balloon, which they would use for their shared flight: the Frenchman would construct the gondola whereas the Pole would make the envelope. Potocki readily agreed and began to organise the creation of the bag, following Blanchard’s guidelines:
From foreign manufacturers Potocki obtained, according to exaggerated claims, 13,000 ells of smooth and shiny silk in various colours, except for white and black. Eighteen sowing apprentices taken from various inns sowed for a couple of months such a huge balloon that it barely fit into three wide-open rooms in the palace of the said gentleman in 744 Rymarska Street. […] After it was finished, Potocki used the balloon to ascend into the air to a certain height […].
From ‘Estetyka Miasta Stołecznego Warszawy’, an 1833 memoir by writer and physicist Antoni Magier, trans. MK
Potocki and Blanchard’s hot-air balloon flight took place on 14th May 1790 in Warsaw. The pair, accompanied also by Potocki’s Turkish servant Ibrahim, launched from the garden of the Mniszech Palace in 38/40 Senatorska Street and travelled through the air for about 30 minutes. The company landed in the village of Wola, which today is one of Warsaw’s neighbourhoods. Thanks to this episode, Potocki became the first Polish (human) aeronaut – or the first Pole to successfully journey in air. Potocki described his ballooning experience in an essay published in French, but unfortunately all the copies of this work have been lost. We can only imagine that – quite probably – Potocki had a lot of fun during his pioneering balloon flight!
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The first survivor
The final two partitions of Poland, which occurred in 1793 and 1795 (the first one took place in 1772), hindered the development of ballooning in Poland. As a consequence, the number and quality of balloon experiments in the Land on Vistula dropped. Nevertheless, interesting things in the field of ballooning continued to happen in Poland. One such thing was the memorable 1808 flight of the Romanian circus artist Jordaki Kuparentko.
Kuparentko came to Warsaw in the beginning of the 19th century, becoming a prominent figure of the local circus and theatre scenes. He also became interested in ballooning and conducted a number of trials in that field. On 24th July 1808, he piloted a hot air balloon of his own construction, which launched from the aforementioned Vauxhall garden to the amusement of a crowd of spectators.
The aerostat reached an altitude of about 1250 metres and flew for almost 15 minutes. During that time, using a thermometer given to him by physicist Antoni Magier, Kuparentko managed to measure the temperature of the air above Warsaw, showing that it was cooler than at ground level. When the balloon began to descend, it caught fire, and Kuparentko had to improvise in order to save his life. Here’s how this dramatic episode was described by the periodical Gazeta Korespondenta Warszawskiego i Zagranicznego (Warsaw & International Correspondent’s Newspaper) in its 60th issue, from the year 1808:
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The sailor opened the top vent to descend, but the strong wind started to tear the balloon apart. Kuparentko didn’t lose his calm and held on strong to the gondola in which he was sitting. Although the balloon began to burn as it came closer to the ground, the burning heater and the bottom of the gondola served him as a parachute, and he dropped lightly on the sand near Powązki.
Even though the balloon’s gondola tilted, Kuparentko managed to survive by clinging to it; eventually he only injured one of his legs. Thanks to this fortunate crash landing, he is considered the first person to ever escape from an aviation accident using a parachute (quite probably not only the gondola, but also the unburnt parts of the envelope acted as a motion slowing device). Of course, this wasn’t by any means the last accord in the long and interesting history of ballooning in Poland. Many curious episodes followed, but that’s a whole different story…
Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin
Tytus Liwiusz Burattini
Maria Anna Czartoryska
Filuś the cat
Jean Pierre Blanchard
Polish balloon innovation
Written by Marek Kępa, Sep 2020