The quest to conquer the skies. First balloons in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The quest to conquer the skies. First balloons in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

From the dawn of time, men have fantasized about the ability to fly. The Greek myth about Icarus and Daedalus and their artificial wings, entrenched in our collective identity, influenced the imagination of continuous generations of Europeans. In the second half of the 18th century, humanity took a giant leap towards conquering the skies, and Europe went crazy over a new phenomenon: ballooning.


Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne Montgolfier knew everything about paper. This raw material, produced in their family manufactory in the south of France, was not only a source of income for them but also a material thanks to which they could express their creative energy. Joseph-Michel constructed kites and primitive parachutes, but the brothers’ greatest invention was a bit of a coincidence. The inspiration was the observation of the fire and dust particles floating above it. Following this thought, he constructed a device of wood and fabric, under which he lit a fire. Thanks to the hot air, the small structure lifted upwards. Joseph Michel was euphoric; he quickly informed his brother about the whole affair, and the two of them made bigger and bigger balloons. On June 4, 1783, near the city of Annonay, the brothers first publicly showed the world the possibilities of their invention. The balloon floating in the air for 10 minutes aroused admiration among the spectators.

On September 19, 1783, in front of the royal palace, the brothers launched a balloon called Aérostat Réveillon, which carried three passengers on board: a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. Image source: Polona.pl

The news of the remarkable achievement of the Montgolfier brothers quickly reached Versailles. The curious King Louis XIV summoned the inventors to his court to find out for himself the truth of these reports. On September 19, 1783, in front of the royal palace, the brothers launched a balloon called Aérostat Réveillon, which carried three passengers on board: a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The entire crew landed safely, and the king ordered the brothers to continue their experiments. It was only a matter of time before the first man in the balloon took to the skies. This act was performed by Jacques Étienne on October 15, 1783, floating on board a colorful balloon in the Parisian suburbs. Reports of these sensational developments spread across the continent, and the Montgolfier brothers found numerous followers. Aeronauts, as balloon pilots were once known, appeared everywhere, and at the same time, modern aviation was born.

The news quickly reached the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well. In Gazeta Warszawska (Warsaw Newspaper) from November 1783 we can find the following note:

Weather that we have here [i.e. in Paris]for 7 to 8 days allowed Mr. Montgolfier to make his experiments: they had few witnesses; his machine, held each time by ropes, rose to 30, to 40 and up to 50 feet. One of the artisans, as well as Mr. Pilsastre du Rosier, and even J. Mr. Montogolfier himself, flew several times with this machine. (…) This way it is shown, and it has been proved, that this is possible, as they wish, to raise and lower this machine. Now we have to discover another secret: how it can be guided by a horizontal line, that is, if the gas can be renewed with such a matter as to give a flame that is alive and bright without any smoke and that lasts a little longer over the salt-lit flame.

The pioneers of Polish ballooning

The news from Paris very quickly captured the imaginations of many Polish researchers and scientists. Already at the beginning of 1784, the first successful attempts to fly a balloon were made in Krakow. The pioneers of Polish ballooning were the professors of the Jagiellonian University.

Kraków in the 18th century. Image source: Digital collection of National Museum in Kraków

The first hot air balloon flight was organized in January 1784 in Wesoła, an area east of the Kraków Old Town. The university’s Botanical Garden was located there, with which the constructors of the balloon were associated. Among the gathered observers was the king himself, keenly interested in technology news. The whole experiment was set as a spectacle. The gentlemen repeated their attempts with the paper balloon in April this year, and they described their experiences in a fantastic booklet entitled Describing the Experience with the Air Dome. The very first paragraph expresses the enthusiasm and hope for the development of science:

The experience with the Air Dome, being one of the most wonderful to the eye, brings much glory to the human mind because man, using one element to conquer another, found access to the depths of the atmosphere, overflowing the whole earth, which had closed to him almost all the properties of his Machine; but perhaps bring still more glory by the use that may result from it for the companionship when talent, aided by the Physical and Mathematical Sciences, enlivened by the advantage of fame, touched by the benefits of the Universal, will happily overcome many more substituting difficulties.

The researchers then describe how they prepared three months for the experiment. In 1784 there were two ways to move the balloon. The first one was used by the Montgolfier brothers and consisted of using only living fire, kindled and kept by very dry combustibles. The best fuel was to be dry beech wood. The second way was due to the invention of Jacques Charles, who on August 27, 1783, launched a balloon filled with hydrogen in the Field of Mars. Therefore, balloons filled with hot air were called montgolfiers, and hydrogen – charliers. The scientists performed a series of mathematical calculations to ensure that the machine they constructed would successfully take off. The balloon hovering over Krakow was seen all over the area; even in Wieliczka town.

A public announcement had been issued for several days, which was posted in a public place to warn everyone of the experiment, which was to be held on the first nice day. The event was to be announced with a mortar firing. We sent tickets to enter the botanical garden, where the balloon was deflated with air.

The whole Machine, with great splendor, with the cries of all the Spectators, rose, and as it flew away, it accelerated its course more and more up.

The second way was due to the invention of Jacques Charles, who on August 27, 1783, launched a balloon filled with hydrogen in the Field of Mars. Image source: Polona.pl

Who was the first to conquer the skies in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?

It took a few more years for the first manned flight in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This achievement was made on May 10, 1789, and the brave daredevil was the French inventor, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who took the flight together with the singer Joanna Cymerman. After numerous travels, this adventurous Frenchman, hungry for fame, came to Warsaw in 1789. On May 10, in the Foksal garden in Warsaw, an aerostat was prepared for flight under the watchful eye of numerous observers and among them was the king himself. Blanchard rose to air at 1:15 pm and drifted for 49 minutes, after which he landed in a forest in Białołęka, on the other side of the Vistula river. As in Krakow, the unusual event was announced by the firing of cannons. In the press of that time (Gazeta Warszawska, May 13, 1789) we can find a note:

Famous for his Aerial Sailing, Mr. Blanchard, a French native, from the City of Calais, with the salary of the King of France, member of many scientific Academies, made a strange spectacle in the capital with his (already thirty-fourth) Air Journey (…). The French Lady, who had already performed Air Sailing in Metz with him, accompanied him in Warsaw.

Especially for this occasion, a commemorative medal was struck with the image of the aviator and the image of a balloon flight. There is a Latin inscription on it: Fearless does not dread the fate of Icarus. Image source: Image source: Digital collection of National Museum in KrakówEspecially for this occasion, a commemorative medal was struck with the image of the aviator and the image of a balloon flight. There is a Latin inscription on it: Fearless does not dread the fate of Icarus. Image source:

On the same day, Mr. Blanchard and Mrs. Cymerman were welcomed with great pomp at the Warsaw theater, and in the lounge prepared for them, there was a fake balloon, from which French poems praising aeronauts spilled out at the right moment. One of them was as follows: In vain the eyes are diminished, the one who pursues the Stars; the bigger in our thoughts, the less flicker in our eyes. Especially for this occasion, a commemorative medal was struck with the image of the aviator and the image of a balloon flight. There is a Latin inscription on it: Fearless does not dread the fate of Icarus. Was it created by order of the king, or was it an initiative of Blanchard himself? We don’t know, but considering that the Frenchman loved to make noise around him, the second option seems more likely.

Jan Potocki, first polish aeronaut

It is to Blanchard that we also owe the air travel of the first Polish aeronaut. It was Jan Potocki, who accompaniedBlanchard on his flight on May 14, 1790, a year after the brave Frenchman’s first visit to the Vistula River.

Who was Jan Potocki? This extremely interesting person is today known primarily for writing the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Potocki’s life could be the basis for a book, TV series, or movie. This very well-educated aristocrat spent his childhood abroad, where he also had an episode of military service in the imperial army. However, he spent most of his time traveling, including Mediterranean countries: Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt. Potocki was driven by his extraordinary curiosity about the world as well as ethnographic and archaeological fervor. He loved all antiquities and spared no effort to see as much as possible. He lived an adventurous life full of ventures: at one point he fought pirates in the Mediterranean Sea on ships of the Knights of Malta! He traveled through Egypt in a shaved head in Druze clothes and was delighted to see ancient monuments, including, of course, the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs and the statue of the Sphinx. As is customary (which may shock us today), he left graffiti on the pyramid.

Portrait of Jan Potocki. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

After numerous trips and a stay in Paris, Potocki returned to Poland. From then on, he led an eccentric lifestyle in his homeland, although, which was noted with some surprise, he began to wear the Polish national costume.

Potocki was also responsible for the construction of the balloon, and the material was allegedly brought from his foreign travels. Eighteen craftsmen were to be hired for the production! Potocki did not enter the gondola of Blanchard’s balloon alone: he was accompanied by his Turkish servant, Ibrahim, and a white poodle. Once again, the aeronauts soared over Warsaw, watched by crowds of curious people. After a successful flight, the aerostat landed in Wola.

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