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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Joseph-Michel Montgolfier

Inventor; b. at Vidalon-lez-Annonay, Department of Ardeche, France, August 26, 1740; d. at Balaruc-les-Bains, Department of Herault, France, June 26, 1810

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Errata* for Joseph-Michel Montgolfier:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Montgolfier , JOSEPH-MICHEL, inventor; b. at Vidalon-lez-Annonay, Department of Ardeche, France, August 26, 1740; d. at Balaruc-les-Bains, Department of Herault, France, June 26, 1810. His father was a prosperous paper-manufacturer, who brought up nine children, presenting to them an example of high virtue, honesty, economy, and piety. Joseph was educated at the local college in a very unsatisfactory manner. When he returned home he found in the manufacture of paper subjects of study more to his liking. He set up an independent establishment with his brother Augustine in order to exercise the inventive faculties that were held in check by his economical father. His numerous ideas and projects and his simplicity of character exposed him to financial losses, and eventually brought upon him an unjust temporary imprisonment.

He improved the manufacture of paper, invented a method of stereotyping, and constructed an air-pump for rarefying the air in the moulds. Numerous objects of everyday life occupied his inventive genius. His most important work, however, was in connection with hydraulics and aeronautics. He interested his brother Etienne in these so-called chimerical projects. They invented the hydraulic ram, which uses the energy from a copious flow of water under a small head in order to force a small portion of that water to a considerable height. Observations on the behavior of a sheet hung over a fire led them to attempt a number of experiments with balloons made of taffetas and filled with heated air. On June 5, 1783, a successful exhibition took place before the Estates of Vivarais, assembled at Annonay. A globe, 110 feet in circumference and weighing about 500 pounds, was filled with air half as heavy as the atmosphere. This balloon rose to a height of 6600 feet and came down very gently at a distance of a mile and a half. This attempt naturally excited enormous interest throughout the civilized world. Joseph left to his brother the honor and duty of reporting to the Academy of Sciences at Paris and of repeating experiments at the expense of the Government. Balloons were constructed that carried with them a furnace for the purpose of keeping the air heated and therefore light, and two courageous physicists, Biot and Gay-Lussac made a successful ascent. At Lyons, Joseph and six others went up in a balloon 126 feet high and 102 feet in diameter. On August 20, 1783, the brothers were placed by acclamation on the list of correspondents of the Academy, "as scientists to whom we are indebted for a new art that will make an epoch in the history of human science". Etienne received the decoration of Saint-Michel for himself, and letters of nobility for his father. Joseph obtained a pension, and 40,000 livres for the construction of an experimental dirigible balloon. This he was unable to realize.

He was noted for extraordinary bodily strength and for courageous philanthropy. During the stormy days of the Revolution he offered and ensured protection and asylum to many proscribed persons, who were often not known to him even by name. "Siding with no faction, he submitted to the political laws unless they were in opposition to the laws of humanity, and awaited with confidence the return of order". His business having been ruined, he went to Paris, where the new Government welcomed and rewarded him. He was called to the consulting bureau of arts and manufactures, was named demonstrator of the Conservatory of Arts and Trades, was received at the Institute, 1807, as the successor of Coulomb, and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Apart from a few memoirs in "Journal des Mines" and "Journal de l'Ecole polytechnique", he published very little, viz.: "Discours sur l'aerostat" (with his brother Etienne), Paris, 1783; "Voyageurs aeriens" (with Etienne), Paris, 1784; "Memoires sur la machine aerostatique", Paris, 1784; "Notes sur le belier hydraulique", Paris, 1803.


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