Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (1754 – 1785)
The latest inductee to our prestigious Hall of Fame is the French physicist, chemist and aeronaut, Jean-Francois de Rozier.
Rozier was born in Metz which was an important garrison town on the French border. The proximity of a large military hospital to where he grew up sparked his interest in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. Rozier taught physics and chemistry at the Academy in Reims where he came to the attention and was taken under the wing of Louis XVI’s brother, the comte de Provence.
It was while under the comte’s patronage that our hero conducted research and published some papers on optics and the cause of thunder. He worked on a state-sponsored commission whose brief was to alleviate the noxious airs that pervaded the French capital at the time and he came up with a breathing apparatus, which was a bit like scuba equipment, to assist workers in circumstances where the air was harmful to their health.
But Rozier’s real claim to fame was his pioneering work in aeronautics. His imagination was fired when he witnessed the first public demonstration of a balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in June 1783. Rozier muscled into the act assisting in the first untethered balloon flight, from the lawn of the Palace of Versailles on 19th September 1783, the passengers being a sheep, a cockerel and a duck.
Consideration was given to a manned flight and the initial idea was that given the dangers of the venture the human passengers should be expendable convicted criminals. Au contraire, cried our hero, the passengers should be from the nobility and he persuaded the king that he and the Marquis d’Arlandes be allowed the (dubious) honour of being the first passengers.
Their first tethered ascent was on 15th October 1783 and on 21st November they took off on the first untethered flight, lasting 25 minutes and attaining a height of 3,000 feet. This made Rozier an international sensation, lauded by poets and heralded as a hero throughout Europe. But his star soon waned as others rose to the challenge.
On 26th July 1784 Jean-Pierre Blanchard (and Dr John Sheldon) had stolen our hero’s thunder by flying from Blighty to France. Undeterred, Rozier decided to attempt a crossing from la belle France to Blighty, a much trickier journey because of the adverse winds. For the attempt Rozier designed a special balloon, which was a combination of a hydrogen and hot air balloon to give it more lift.
On 15th June 1785 Rozier and his companion, Romain, set off from Boulogne-sur-Mer. After travelling 5km the wind suddenly changed, causing the balloon to suddenly deflate and catch fire, plunging out of control 1,500 feet up in the air. Eheu, both occupants were killed, becoming the first fatal casualties in aeronautical history. For his bravery Rozier’s family was awarded a pension by the king.
The modern hybrid gas and hot air balloon is called the Roziere balloon in his honour.
Rozier, for your pioneering spirit and for your Icarian downfall, you are a worthy inductee.
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