Montgolfier, Étienne Jacques De

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(b. Vidalon-les-Annonay, France, 6 January 1745; d. Serrières, France, 1 August 1799);


(b. Vidalon-les-Annonay, 26 August 1740; d. Balaruc-les-Bains, France, 26 June 1810), technology, aeronautics.

The Montgolfier brothers were two of the sixteen children of Pierre Montgolfier, a paper manufacturer near Annonay, south of Lyons, and Anne Duret. Joseph de Montgolfier traveled widely in his youth, married in 1771, and settled in Vidalon, having founded his own paper factory fifty miles away at Voiron. He was a skillful and imaginative technologist, self-taught in mathematics and science. Étienne Jacques de Montgolfier excelled in mathematics at school in Paris and studied architecture under J. G. Soufflot; he practiced architecture until 1772, then returned to Annonay to direct his father’s factory.

It is not known why Joseph and Étienne de Montgolfier first became interested in the problem of flight. At any rate, their early experiments were based upon the belief that a man could be raised by a balloon filled with a light gas. In 1782 they made small paper and silk model balloons filled with hydrogen; the balloons rose but the gas quickly escaped. They then found that air heated to about 80° R. (100° C.) became sufficiently rarefied to lift a balloon and did not diffuse. In November 1782 they made a balloon of forty-cubic-foot capacity, which reached a height of seventy feet; and on 5 June 1783 a paper and cloth globe thirty-five feet in diameter rose 6,000 feet above Annonay.

An incomplete account of the Montgolfiers’ experiment convinced scientists in Paris that hydrogen had been used, and J. A. C. Charles began to develop a hydrogen balloon. Before Charles launched it on 27 August Étienne de Montgolfier himself arrived in Paris, where he constructed several hot-air balloons. The first human flight was made on 20 November 1783 by J. F. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes in one of these “Montgolfiéres.”

The Montgolfier brothers were elected as corresponding members of the Paris Academic des Sciences, and at its meeting on 15 November 1783 Étienne de Montgolfier discussed in mathematical terms the problem of navigating balloons. Joseph de Montgolfier was then in Lyons, where he described the brothers’ discovery to the Lyons Academy and constructed a balloon of more than 100 feet in diameter, in which he and six others flew on 19 January 1784.

Joseph de Montgolfier may have witnessed Le Normand’s parachute trials at Montpellier. He made a parachute of his own design and in March 1784 dropped a sheep from a tower at Avignon. After that the brothers withdrew from aeronautics. They had been helped in their efforts by F. P. A. Argand, and in October 1785 Joseph de Montgolfier visited London to support him in a patent case concerning his oil lamp.

After spending the winter of 1783–1784 in Paris, Étienne de Montgolfier returned to his father’s factory, which produced high-quality paper and which in 1784 was given the appellation manufacture royale. He became the proprietor in 1787, and the factory remained his principal interest, apart from a brief excursion into local politics in 1790–1791.

Joseph de Montgolfier subsequently made several inventions, the most important of which was the hydrauhc rani, a simple device for raising water, wihch was widely adopted. The machine consisted of two valves in an iron box (the “ram’s head”) which were automatically operated by the changing pressure of water flowing into it from a reservoir. When the valve leading to the waste pipe closed suddenly, that leading to the outlet pipe opened and a small volume of water was driven by its own momentum to a considerable height. The valves then recovered their original positions and the action was repeated. Argand helped to develop the ram, but in the Journal des mines for 1802–1803 Joseph de Montgolfier claimed that the invention was his own.

Never a very successful businessman, Joseph de Montgolfier retired from paper making after the French Revolution and moved to Paris, where in 1800 he was appointed demonstrator at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. In 1801 he helped to found the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale; he was elected to the Institut de France in 1807.


1. He was named Étienne Jacques in the baptismal register, but Jacques Éenne in his death certificate. These documents, cited by Rostaing (see bibliography), are now in the Archives Départmentales de l’AredÉche, Privas. The family was ennobled in December 1783 and only then acquired the right to use the prefix “de.”

2. He was baptized Michel Joseph but was generally known as Joseph Michel.


I. Original Works, Joseph de Montgolfier’s Discours prononcé à l’ Académic des Sciences de Lyon (Paris, 1784) was also printed by Saint-Fond (see below). Different versions of the hydraulic ram are described in several papers by Montgolfier: “Note sur le bélier hydraulique, et sur la manière d’en calculer les effets,” in Journal des mines, 13 (1802–1803) 42–51; “Sur le bélier hydraulique,” ibid., 15 (1803–1804), 23–37; “Du bélier hydraulique et de son utilite,” in Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale, 4 (1805), 170–181; “Mémoire sur la possibilité de substituer le bélier hydraulique à l’ancienne machine de Marly,” ibid, 7 (1808), 117–124, 136–152; and “Sur quelques perfectionnemens du belier hydraulique,” ibid., 8 (1809), 215–220. Also by Joseph de Montgolfier is “Description et usage d’un calorimetre, ou appareil propre à déterminer le degré de chaleur ainsi que l’économie qui résulte de l’emploi du combustible,” ibid., 4 (1805), 43–46; repr. in Journal des mines, 19 (1806), 67–72.

Many letters and other manuscripts concerning the Montgolfier family, formerly in the archives of the Châateau de Colombier le Cardinal (Ardéche). are now in the Fonds Montgolfier of the Musée de l’Air, Paris.

II. Secondary Literature. The earliest account of Joseph de Montgolfier is J. B. J. Delambre, “Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Montgolfier,” in Mémoires de la classe des sciences mathématiques et physiques de l’Institut de France… Histoire for 1810 (1814), xxvii-xliv; more detail is given by J. M. de Gerando, “Notice sur M. Joseph Montgolfier,” in Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement pour l’Industrie nationale, 13 (1814), 91–108; some information about his work in Paris is in R. Tresse, “La Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers et la Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale au début du XIXe siècle,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 5 (1952), 246 -264.

There is a short account of étienne Jacques de Montgolfier (with incorrect dates of birth and death) in Michaud’s Biographie universelle, 29 (Paris, 1821), 570–571. A valuable study of the entire family is L. Rostaing, La famille de Montgolfier, ses alliances, ses descendants (Lyons, 1910).

The early balloon flights are described in B. Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier, et de celles auxquelles cette découverte a donnié lieu (Paris, 1783; 2nd ed., 1784) and in his second volume, Première suite de la description des expériences… (Paris, 1784). The Première suite includes Joseph de Montgolfier’s “Mémoire lu à l’ Académie de Lyon” (pp. 98–111) and Étienne de Montgolfier’s “Mémoire sur les moyens mécaniques appliqués àla direction des machines aérostatiques, lu à l’Académie royale des sciences” (pp. 287–295).

Joseph de Montgolfier’s parachute is described by C. A. Prieur, “Note historique sur l’invention et les premiers essais des parachutes,” in Annales de chimie, 31 (1799), 269–273, with an extract from a letter by him. Le Normand’s claim to priority is published by C. A. Prieur, “Réclamation relative à l’invention des parachutes,” ibid., 36 (1800), 94–99, For a guide to the extensive early literature of aeronautics, see G. Tissandier, Bibliographie aéronautique (Paris, 1887; repr., Amsterdam, 1971).

The relations between Argand and the Montgolfier brothers are discussed by M. Schrøder, The Argand Burner, Its Origin and Development in France and England, 1780–1800 (Odense, 1969), see index. Argand is named as one of the inventors of the hydraulic ram by Schrøder (p. 57); the first published account of the ram, by “L. C.” (probably Lazare Carnot), is “Sur une nouvelle espèce de machine hydraulique, par les CC. [Citoyens] Montgolfier et Argant,” in Bullein des sciences par la Société philomathiqne, no. 8 (1797), 58–60 with plate facing p. 72.

A final anonymous description of the ram is “Note sur le bélier hydraulique de feu M. Joseph Montgolfier,” in Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement pour l’Industrie nationale, 12 (1813), 10–11. Two other inventions are described posthumously by Desormes and Clément: “Description d’un procédé économique pour l’evaporation, imaginé par feu Joseph Montgolfier,” in Annales de chimie, 76 (1810), 34–53, and “Fabrication du blanc de plomb (procédé de Monigolfier) ibid., 80 (1811), 326–329, repr. in Bulletin de la Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale, 11 (1812), 16–17, A previously unpublished memoir by Joseph de Montgolfier, describing a device for raising water by the expansion of hot air, is printed, with a useful commentary and a misleading title, by C. Cabanes, “Joseph de Montgolfier: Inventeur du moteur à combustion interne,” in Nature (Paris), 64 , pt. 1 (1936), 364–368, and ibid., pt. 2, 252–255.

W. A. Smeaton

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Montgolfier, Étienne Jacques De