Pilatre De Rozier, Jean François

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(b. Metz, france, 30 March 1754; d. Wimille, near Boulogne. France, 15 June 1785)

education, aeronautics.

The son of Mahurin Pilastre du Rosier, an inn-keeper, and Madleine Willemart, Pilatre was baptized François but later added the name Jean and modified his surname. (He never used the form Pilare) After studying pharmacy for three years in Metz, he attended scientific courses at Paris. About 1776 he taught a physics course in Paris and for a short time was professor of chemistry at the Societe d’Emulation of Rheims. He reurned o Paris about 1780 as keeper of the physics and natural history cabinets of the Comte de Provence, brother of Louis XvI

Under his patronage Pilatre founded the Musee, a private institution for higher education that opened in 1781 on the rue St-Avoye but soon moved to the rue de Valois. By 1785 it had 700 members, including the academicians Condorcet, fourcroy, and Vicq d’Azyr, who gave their encouragment, as well as many ladies and gentlemen of society who attended lectures on a wide range of literary and scientific subjects.

Pilatre was skilled at arranging lecture demonstrations, but the research that he attempted was of little merit. Hoping to be elected to the Academie des Sciences, he submitted chemical and physical memoirs on several occasions between 1781 and 1784 but was never proposed as a candidate. His one useful invention was a respirator that enabled a man working in the noxious atmosphere of a deep well or cesspit to breathe fresh air, which was supplied by a flexible hose from the surface, and he corageously demonstrated it himself. It was praised in 1783 by the Société Royale de Medecine but was not generally adopted.

After being present at Versailles on 19 September 1783, when Éinne Montgolfier’s hot-air balloon safely carried a sheep, a cock, and a duck for two miles, Pilatre took part in the trials of a new balloon constructed by Montgolfier in the garden of J.B. Revillon, a paper manufacturer. This balloon had room for two in a gallery around the base, from which a brazier suspended under the opening of the balloon could be fed with ful. On 15 October Pilatre rose to eighty feet in the techred balloon, and he soon learned how to vary the altitude by controlling the fire. Accompanied by Marquis francois Laurent D’Arlandes, an infantry major, he made the first human flight on 21 November 1783, taking off from the Château de la Muette, west of Paris, and traveling nearly six miles across the city in about twenty-five minutes, at about 3,000 feet. Pilatre made several other hot-air ascents, notably with Joseph Montgolfier and five others at Lyons on 19 January 1784 and with the chemist J. L. Proust on 23 June 1784, when they reached a height of about 11,000 feet above Versailles.

Pilatre hoped to make the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, and early in January 1785 he was at English Channel, and early in January 1785 he was at Boulogne. The wind was unfavorable, however, and the honor went to J. P. Blanchard and John Jeffries, who flew from Dover to Calais on 7 January. Pilatre accompanied Blanchard to Paris and made him a member of the Musee. He subsequently visited England, where he was present at ascents by Blanchard on 21 May and 3 June.

Pilatre attempted his own crossing from Boulogne on 15 June 1785, accompanied by Pierre Ange Romakin, one of the contructors of th balloon, which was of a new type designed by Pilatre. Hot air being denser than hydrogen, a hot-air balloon had to be larger than a hydrogen balloon in order to carry the same weight; but its altitude could easily be changed by varying the size of the fire. Hoping to combine the advantages of both types, Pilatre attached a hydrogen balloon to the top of a small cylindrical hot-air balloon, apparently assuming that escaping hydrogen would rise and that there would be no danger of ignition from the fire below. Tragically, he was proved wrong. The balloon caught fire at about 1,700 feet and crashed near Boulogne, killing both occupants.

After Pilatre’s death the Musée was reorganized and called the Lycee. Under its later names, Lycee Répulicain (1792) and Athenee de Paris (1802), it played an important part in the scientific and cultural life of Paris until the 1840’s.


I. Original Works. Seven memoirs by Pilatre were published in Observations sur la physique... between 1780 and 1782, and are listed in the collective index, ibid., 29 (1786), 468–469. Some other writings were published posthumously by A. Tournon de la Chapelle (see below). Pilatre’s only separate publication was Premiére experience de la montgolfiere construite par ordre du roi (Paris, 1784), a description of his flight on 23 June 1784.

II. Secondary Literature. There are a number of incorrect dates in Pilatre’s first biography, Tournon de la Chapelle, lavie et les memoires de Pilatre de Rozier (Paris, 1786). Later accounts of value are Leon Babinet, Notice sur pilatre de Rozier (Metz, 1865); P. Dorveaux,“Pilatre de Rozier,” in Bulletin de la Société d’ historie de la pharmacie (1920), 209–220, 249–258; and“Pilatre de Rozier et l’Academie des sciences,” in Cahiers lorrains, 8 , (1929), 162–166, 182–185; and W. A. Smeaton,“Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier, the First Aeronaut,” in Annals of Science11 (1955), 349–355. Some dates in Smeaon’s account are corrected in a review by A. Birembaut in Archives intrnaionales d’historie des scinces, 11 (1958), 100–101; further details of Pilatre’s flights correcting statements by earlier authors are given by W. A. Smeaton, “The Firs and Last Balloon Ascents of Pilatre de Rozier,” ibid., 263–269.

For accounts of the early history of the Musée (after 1785, the Lycée), see C. Cabanes, “Histoire du premier musée autorisé par le gouvernement,” in Nature (Paris), 65 (1937), pt . 2, 577–583; and W. A. Smeaton, “The Early Years of the Lycée and the Lycée des Arts: A Chapter in the Lives of A. L. Lavoisier and A. F. de Fourcroy. I. The Lycee of the Rue de Valois,” in Annals of Science, 11 (1955), 257–267.

Pilatre’s early balloon flights are described by B. Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description des experiences de la machine aerostatique de MM. de Montgolfier ... (Paris, 1783; 2nd ed ., 1784) and Première suite de la description ... (Paris, 1784), of which no further volumes were published.

W. A. Smeaton