It was on this date, August 26, 1740, that French paper-maker and chemist Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, was born, one of 16 children of a prosperous paper manufacturer. With his younger brother Jacques-Étienne, the Montgolfier brothers conducted experiments with paper and fabric bags filled with smoke and hot air, which eventually led to their co-invention of the first hot-air balloon. On 5 June 1783, they inflated a large linen bag with hot air. Ascending to 3,000 feet (1,000 metres) in the marketplace at Annonay, near Lyons, the flight lasted 10 minutes and covered more than a mile. On September 19 of that same year, the Montgolfier brothers set aloft another balloon, with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck as passengers, which landed safely about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) from the launch site. Then, about a month later, on 21 November 1783, in the first untethered, manned flight by hot air balloon, the Montgolfiers sent Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis d’Arlandes, as passengers in a balloon that sailed over Paris for 5.5 miles (9 kilometres) for about 25 minutes. This balloon, too, landed safely.
In recognition of their achievement, Étienne received the ribbon of St. Michael, Joseph was awarded a pension of 1,000 livres and King Louis XVI elevated their father Pierre to the French nobility (thereafter bearing the surname “de Montgolfier”) Among many additional honors bestowed on Joseph Montgolfier were membership in the Legion of Honor and appointment to the Institute of France. Thereafter, the brothers published books on aeronautics and continued their scientific careers: Joseph invented a calorimeter and the hydraulic ram, and Étienne developed a process for manufacturing vellum. Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier died on 2 August 1799, at age 54, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Joseph-Michel Montgolfier died at Balaruc-les-Bains, France, age 69, on 26 June 1810.
However, Joseph-Michel supported the French Revolution, and was appointed Administrator of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. The French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, a close friend, told Sylvain Maréchal, author of the Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Atheists, that Montgolfier was an Atheist—or, as Joseph Mazzini Wheeler put it in his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (1889), “A friend of Delambre and La Lande, he was on the testimony of this last an atheist.” Indeed, that venerable vetter of the virtuous, the Catholic Encyclopedia, conveniently mentions only Joseph-Michel’s pious brother!