When we think of experiments that test bodily reactions to high altitudes, we think of the space program, or at least the airplane industry. In fact, the first careful experiment took place hundreds of years ago, in the gardens of Versailles.

In the 1700s, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier went from simple paper lanterns that floated lightly on the wind when fires were lit under them, to full scale hot air balloons. They were the first ones to prepare a practical prototype – on that, when they tested it, rose, unmanned, nearly 7,000 feet into the air. As the brothers watched it, it occurred to them that, since no one had been that far away from the Earth before, there might be some real problems for biological entities. Neither was eager to try the balloons out and see what happened, so they set up the first biological high-altitude aeronautics experiment.

They set up their balloons, with a basket that would contain passengers. Instead of humans, they put a sheep, a rooster, and a duck in the basket. This was less haphazard than it appeared. Roosters and sheep were unalike, and would give them some indication about the spectrum of reactions. The duck was the control animal. Ducks, they knew, flew at great heights most of the time anyway. A surviving duck would let them know that there was something about that height that other biological creatures couldn’t survive. A dead one would let them know that there was a balloon accident.


On September 19, 1783, the brothers launched Aerostat Reveillon into the air. The scientific academy and Louis XVI watched the balloons float along for eight minutes. When it came down they saw that all the animals were rattled, but otherwise unharmed. A manned flight was sent up next.

Although the brothers should be credited with using the scientific method on the developing French aerospace industry, they didn’t get everything right. They thought they had invented, by burning paper, wool, and horse manure, a new gas which was lighter than air. They called this the Montgolfier gas. Since then, of course, it’s been shown that it was only heated air, which had become less dense and so rose up until it met air of its own density. Still, let us pay homage to those three brave animals, and hope that they weren’t eaten directly afterwards.

Via Sundance Balloons and Chateau Versailles.