ATLAS OBSCURA

Double Sunsets and Peasants with Pitchforks in the Trials of 18th Century Balloonists

1783 was a big year for ballooning, one with peasants attacking the strange flying machines with pitchforks, and of double sunsets. Perhaps the most monumental achievement was on December 1, when French scientist Jacques Charles with Nicolas-Louis Robert of les Frères Robert, a duo of ballooning brothers, ascended into the skies over Paris in the first manned hydrogen balloon flight.

A small plaque for the flight is tucked in an alcove at the entrance to the Jardin des Tuileries just before the garden meets with the busy Place de la Concorde. Despite being wedged on the thoroughfare between two of the most touristy destinations in Paris — the Louvre and the Champs-Elysées — the marker mostly goes unnoticed. However, back on that day in 1783, some 400,000 people packed into the garden just for the event, about half the population of the whole city at the time. 

Jacques Charles with Nicolas-Louis Robert (whose name is commemorated with his alternative name “Marie-Noël” on the plaque) didn’t just suddenly decide to go ballooning, there was a whole aeronautical history that brought them to that point.