First living creatures to take flight in a man-made craft
A sheep, duck and rooster
first first
France (Versailles)

The first living creatures to take to the air in a human-made flying machine were a sheep (called Mont-au-ciel, or "climb-to-the-sky"), a duck and a rooster. On 19 September 1783, these animals were loaded into a cage suspended beneath a Montgolfier Brothers balloon on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France. They ascended to around 520 m (1,700 ft) and covered roughly 3.2 km (2 mi) before crash-landing in a field.

The Mongolfier brothers were from a wealthy family of paper manufacturers based near the city of Lyon, France. Both were educated men, and like many from their generation, they were fascinated by the rapid pace of scientific discovery described in the Journal of the Royal Society and in the writings of "natural philosophers" such as Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish and James Watt.

They were intrigued by the properties of a gas that had been discovered by Henry Cavendish in 1766 and named "Phlogiston" (what we'd now know as hydrogen gas). In the 1770s, another British scientist, Joseph Black, demonstrated that soap bubbles filled with "phlogiston" rose rapidly through air, like a cork to the surface of a tank of water. He speculated that, if someone could find a light enough means of containing this gas, then it could be used to lift objects and even people.

This is where the Montgolfier brothers started their work. In 1781 or 1782, they started carrying out small-scale experiments, intially using dense paper (which they had a bottomless supply of) to try to contain the gas. These failed, as did their follow-up experiments with silk and other fabrics, because the hydrogen would seep out through the pores in the material.

In later accounts of their work, this is described as the point where one of them had a flash of inspiration on seeing something – either a shirt that had been hung up to dry, a piece of discarded paper, or a burning ember – rising through the air above a fire. So the story goes, they realized at that moment that hot air, which is easier to contain than hydrogen, would work just as well.

This is not true. The actual course of events is much stranger. The Montgolfiers did not realize that hot air was less dense than cold air. Instead they became convinced that flames produced, in addition to smoke, some previously unknown lifting gas. After some peculiar – and deeply flawed – experiments, they concluded that this gas was produced in the largest quantities by burning a combination of damp straw and wool. By the time of their famous demonstration flights, the human tendency to see patterns in noise had led them to add spoiled meat and piles of old shoes to the fuel mixture, as this apparently improved performance.

The first Montgolfier balloon was constructed by Joseph in November 1782, while he was staying in Avignon. He made a simple gas-bag from six diamond-shaped silk panels (a 3D shape called Parallelepiped), leaving a hole at the bottom. He then burned some paper beneath it and watched as it rose to the ceiling of his apartment.

On his return home, he repeated the demonstration for his brother, Etienne, and the two of them immediately set to work making a larger balloon. After a few more tests, on 5 June 1783 the brothers undertook a public demonstration of a 650 m3 (22,980 cu ft), 10.6-m-wide (35-ft) spherical balloon, which they launched from the town square in Annonay in front of an amazed crowd.

News of this feat quickly spread to Paris, and the brothers were asked to repeat their demonstration for the Royal Court at Versailles. The first balloon they made for this event failed during testing, so they quickly constructed another with the help of their friend Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who operated the royal paper mill in Paris.

The balloon was 57 ft high and 41 ft wide, with a gas capacity of roughly 37,500 cubic feet. It comprised panels of paper backed with strong cotton cloth, sewn together into a more or less spherical shape. The exterior was richly decorated by Réveillon's workers (his company specialized in fancy, brightly coloured wallpaper and they had woodblock-printing equipment to hand).

On 19 September 1783, the balloon was transported to Versailes and filled by the smoke from the Montgolfier brothers' usual bonfire of strange things (Queen Marie-Antoinette apparently went to view the process, but was driven back by the smell). After that, a cage containing three animals – a sheep, a rooster and a duck – was attached to the side. The aim was to figure out whether or not living creatures could survive the journey.

The balloon rose an estimated 1,700 ft into the air and flew for around eight minutes. This was significantly less than the Mongolfiers had expected (likely due to leaks in the hastily assembled balloon) but more than enough to cause a sensation.

The first person to reach the wreckage of the balloon – some two miles away across the countryside – was a young scientist called Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. He found the cage smashed open and empty, but the sheep was soon spotted grazing in a nearby field. The duck was also unharmed. The rooster had an injured wing, and this was the subject of some considerable speculation until several witnesses confirmed that they had seen the sheep kick it while the balloon was being filled.

With the success of this flight, the stage was set for the first flight by a human, which would take place less than a month later.