“to the astonishment of a multitude of spectators” — First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin

Today, the First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin remembers the first human ascent made in a balloon on October 14, 1783.

From A Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary, Volume I, by Charles Hutton, published in 1815 in Weybridge, Surrey:


The success of this experiment induced M. Pilatre de Rozier, with a philosophical intrepidity which will be recorded with applause in the history of aerostation, to offer himself as the first adventurer in this aerial navigation.

For this purpose, Montgolfier constructed a new machine, of an oval shape, in a garden of the fauxbourg St. Antoine; its diameter being about 48 feet, and height 74 feet.

To the aperture in the lower part was annexed a wicker gallery about three feet broad, with a balustrade of three feet high.

From the middle of the aperture an iron grate, or brazier, was suspended by chains, descending from the sides of the machine, in which a fire was lighted for inflating the machine; and towards the aperture port-holes were opened in the gallery, through which any person, who might venture to ascend, might feed the fire on the grate with fuel, and regulate at pleasure the dilatation of the air enclosed in the machine: the weight of the whole being upwards of 1600 pounds.

On the 15th of October 1783, the fire being lighted, and the balloon inflated, M. P. de Rozier placed himself in the gallery, and, to the astonishment of a multitude of spectators, ascended as high as the length of the restraining cords would permit, which was about 84 feet from the ground, and there kept the machine afloat near 5 minutes, by repeatedly throwing straw and wool upon the fire.

The machine then descended gradually and gently, through a medium of increasing density, to the ground; and the intrepid adventurer assured the admiring spectators that he had not experienced the least inconvenience in this aerial excursion.

This experiment was repeated on the 17th with nearly the same success; and again several times on the 19th, when M. Rozier, by a partial ascent and descent, several times repeated, evinced to the multitude of observers, that the machine may be made to ascend and descend at the pleasure of the aeronaut, by merely increasing or diminishing the fire in the grate.

The balloon having been hauled down, by the ropes which always confined it, M. Gironde de Villette placed himself in the gallery opposite to M. Rozier, and the machine being suffered to ascend, it hovered for about 9 minutes over Paris, in the sight of all its inhabitants, at the height of 330 feet.

And on their descending, the marquis of Arlandes ascended with M. Rozier much in the same manner.

In consequence of the report of these experiments, signed by the commissaries of the Academy of Sciences, it was ordered that the annual prize of 600 livres should be given to Messrs. Montgolfier for the year 1783.

In the experiments above recited, the machine was always secured by long ropes, to prevent its entire escape, but they were soon succeeded by unconfined aerial navigation.

For this purpose, the same balloon, of 74 feet in height, was conveyed to La Muette, a royal palace in the Bois de Boulogne; and all things being ready, on the 21st of November 1783, M. Rozier and the marquis d’Arlandes took their post in opposite sides of the gallery, and at 2 o’clock the machine was abandoned to the element, when it ascended calmly and majestically in the atmosphere.

On reaching the height of about 280 feet the intrepid aeronauts waved their hats to the astonished multitude, but they soon after rose too high to be distinguished, their greatest height being estimated at 3000 feet.

At first they were driven, by a north-west wind, horizontally over the river Seine and part of Paris, taking care to clear the steeples and high buildings by increasing the fire; and in rising they met with a current of air which carried them southward.

Having thus passed the Boulevard, and finally desisting from supplying the fire with fuel, they descended very gently in a field beyond the new Boulevard, a little more than 5 miles from the palace de La Muette, having been between 20 and 25 minutes in the air.

The weight of the whole apparatus, including that of the two travelers, was between 1600 and 1700 pounds.

Notwithstanding the rapid progress of aerostation in France, it is remarkable that we have no, authentic account of any experiments of this kind being attempted in other countries.

Even in our own island, where all arts and sciences find an indulgent nursery, and many their birth, no aerostatic machine was seen before the month of November 1783.

Various speculations have been made on the reasons of this strange neglect of so novel and brilliant an experiment.

But none seemed to carry any show of probability except that it was said to be discouraged by the leader of a philosophical society, expressly instituted for the improvement of natural knowledge, for the reason, as it was said, that it was the discovery of a neighboring nation.

Be this however as it may, it is a fact that the first aerostatic experiment was exhibited in England by a foreigner unconnected and unsupported.

This was a count Zambeccari, an ingenious Italian, who happened to be in London about that time.

He made a balloon of oiled-silk, 10 feet in diameter, weighing only 11 pounds. It was gilt, both for ornament, and to render it more impermeable to the inflammable air with which it was to be filled.

The balloon, after having been publicly shown for several days in London, was carried to the Artillery Ground, and there being about three quarters filled with inflammable air, and having a direction enclosed in a tin box for any person by whom it should afterwards be found, it was launched about one o’clock on the 25th of November 1783.

At half past 3 it was taken up near Petworth in Sussex, 48 miles distant from London; so that it travelled at the rate of near 20 miles an hour.

Its descent was occasioned by a rent in the silk, the effect of the rarefaction of the inflammable air, when the balloon ascended to a rarer part of the atmosphere.

The French philosophers having executed the first aerial voyage with a balloon inflated by heated air, resolved to attempt a similar voyage with a balloon filled with inflammable air, which seemed to be preferable to dilated air in every respect, the expense of preparing it only excepted.


The First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of the balloon used for the first human ascent on October 15, 1783.

First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin