Pilatre picks his chance... Science

A daredevil and his demonstrations

Jean-Francois Pilatre De Rozier, the son of an innkeeper, was eager to make a name for himself. The hot air balloon would be his vehicle. Image for representational purposes only.   | Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel

The era of aviation, as we know it today, can probably be traced back to the second half of the 18th century, when the hot-air balloon was invented and it’s flying capability was demonstrated.

While it was the Montgolfier brothers who made the first balloons, it was another man who became the first passenger and the first casualty. Jean-Francois Pilatre De Rozier, son of an innkeeper, turned his attention to chemistry and experimental physics, subjects popular in the 18th century, despite having started out studying pharmacy. An aptitude for demonstrations earned him a teaching post in Reims, but he returned to Paris, eager to make a bigger name for himself.

Limited success in research

Pilatre was named the intendant of the cabinets of physics, chemistry and natural history for the Count de Provence, brother to King Louis XVI. This gave him an opportunity to work with a state-sponsored commissioned attempting to alleviate the noxious air of Paris.

Pilatre came up with a respirator - a breathing apparatus that allowed those working in the noxious atmosphere of a deep well or cesspit to breathe fresh air that was supplied by a hose from the surface. Pilatre courageously demonstrated his respirator himself and his device was also praised by the medical fraternity, but it wasn’t adopted in general. Despite this success, Pilatre wasn’t considered a great researcher.

While Pilatre continued to teach classes on chemistry, gases and physics, he also worked on establishing a scientific club, the Musee de Monsieur. This club attracted both men and women and soon boasted a large membership, with lectures in a wide array of topics.

Dangerous lectures

With theatrical methods to attract his audience, Pilatre even disregarded danger while offering his lecture series at the club. On one such occasion, Pilatre inhaled hydrogen into his lungs and then blew it over a candle flame through a tube. The fireball explosion that followed not only highlighted the volatile nature of hydrogen, but also held the audience spellbound.

So when Pilatre witnessed the Montgolfiers’ balloon safely carry a sheep, rooster and duck on September 19, 1783 at Versailles, he was ready for what was to follow. The next step was to put a person on the balloon’s basket, but there were still doubts.

First manned flight

Pilatre didn’t pay heed to the possible dangers and offered to be part of the first manned flight. On October 15, 1783, a tethered balloon with Pilatre on it was launched, and it stayed afloat for close to four minutes. Pilatre soon learned to vary the altitude by controlling the fire and a month later, on November 21, made the first free balloon ascent, along with the Marquis d’Arlandes, a French military officer. They flew for close to 25 minutes, from the centre of Paris to the suburbs, a distance of around nine km at nearly 3,000 feet.

Pilatre also wanted to make the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, but unfavourable wind conditions meant that that honour went to someone else. He eventually attempted his own crossing on June 15, 1785, with a new a type of balloon that he designed himself.

His idea to attach a hydrogen balloon to the top of a small cylindrical hot-air balloon turned out to be fatal for both Pierre Ange Romakin, the constructor, and himself, as the balloon caught fire at about 1,700 feet, killing both of them.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 3:42:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/A-daredevil-and-his-demonstrations/article16670481.ece

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