Early Flight

The first attempts at manned hot-air balloon flights took place not long after the ending of the Great Siege of Gibraltar. The Montgolfier brothers (Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne), established a tradition that persisted with the first spaceflights – sending up animals in the initial experimental flights. In September 1783, a cock, duck and sheep were attached to a hot-air balloon and launched from the Palace of Versailles, near Paris. The animals travelled 2 miles in 8 minutes before landing safely. After that, the way was open for larger balloons carrying people, and the age of flight began. All kinds of enthusiasts started to experiment with both hydrogen and hot-air balloons, and ascents became popular spectacles.

First female balloonists

In June 1784 Madame Thible was the first woman to fly in a balloon, taking off from Lyons in France. A year later (and still less than two years after the first flight by animals), Mrs Letitia Ann Sage became the first woman in Britain to ascend in a balloon.

Letitia Sage, George Biggin and Vincenzo Lunardi
(waving his hat)in the balloon before the ascent in June 1785


The original plan had been for Vincenzo Lunardi, George Biggin and Mrs Sage to make the balloon flight on 29 June 1785, but in the event only Mrs Sage and George Biggin took to the air, as the Northampton Mercury reported:

‘Yesterday [Wednesday 29 June 1785], about a quarter past one o’clock, Mr. Lunardi’s Balloon was launched from Mr Arnold’s Rotunda in St. George’s Fields. The Balloon not being able to carry up three Persons, as intended, and Mr. Biggin having been twice disappointed before, Mr. Lunardi gave the Preference to Mr. Biggin, who was accompanied by Mrs. Sage. It took its course to the westward, and made a very beautiful appearance over Westminster Bridge, and after it had been launched about a quarter of an hour, it altered its course, and was seen very plain in Fleet-Street, Newgate-Street, Holborn &c. and almost all over London. The direction then was north-west. The aerial travellers alighted in perfect safety a few minutes after three o’clock, in Harrow Field, after a very agreeable journey. They were received by the young gentlemen and neighbours with the utmost politeness and friendly attention.’