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History of Ballooning

The first balloon took to the skies more than 200 years ago. The Montgolfier brothers, two paper makers from the southern French town of Annonay, were intrigued by the way smoke rises above a fire. They decided to capture its lifting powers with small paper and cotton balloons and, while they were mistaken in their faith in the smoke itself (or 'Phlogiston' as it was referred to at the time), they succeeded in creating the world's first hot-air balloon.

Antique Hot Air Balloon

On June 5, 1783 they were ready to demonstrate their discovery to the townspeople of Annonay and a small unmanned balloon was inflated over a fire of straw faggots and then released to fly high above the town square. For their next experiment they sent a sheep, a duck and a cockerel aloft for a flight of fifteen minutes. When these pioneering creatures returned unscathed they decided it was time for a man to take to the skies.

For such an experiment to take place required the permission of the King himself and Louis, concerned by the possible risk to one of his subjects, decreed that two convicts should make the ascent. (If they survived they would be granted a royal pardon, and if they didn't...) The Montgolfier brothers were dismayed by this proposal and after much discussion with the court officials persuaded the king to relent and on 21 November 1783 a brightly decorated balloon rose above an ecstatic Parisian crowd bearing aloft the first aeronauts – the first humans to fly – Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes.

Heat for the balloon was generated by a straw fire carried in a brazier slung beneath its mouth and the two men were carried in a narrow gallery encircling it. However as the balloon was only made of paper and cotton they spent much of their time either tending the flames or dabbing out little fires from the smoldering embers with wet sponges fixed on to the end of long sticks. However the Duke d'Arlandes was unable to ignore the splendor of the panorama unfolding down below them, but de Rozier soon reminded him of their plight. 'If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon!' Yet despite the many hazards the balloon landed safely after a flight of thirty minutes.


By one of those strange quirks of history, another band of would-be aeronauts had approached the same challenge of manned flight from an entirely different angle. Professor Charles, another Frenchman, had been closely following Faraday's work with the newly discovered gas hydrogen – a gas which has molecules that are more widely spaced and therefore less dense and lighter than air itself. He joined with the Robert Brothers in Paris and together they constructed a rubberized silk balloon to contain enough of the gas to carry a basket or 'gondola' (as it looked like a small boat) and the crew of two.

Pipped at the post by the Montgolfier brothers they nevertheless continued with their work and only ten days later the citizens of Paris gathered to witness a second historic first as a gas balloon bore Professor Charles and M. Robert into the heavens and soared to 1,800 feet. The flight was a great success and Charles was so taken with his creation that when they came back down to earth Robert got out of the balloon and it shot upwards like a homesick angel – thus Charles became the first person to witness two sunsets in one day.


France and the rest of Europe were quickly gripped by balloon fever and balloons became all the rage. The question of superiority between the 'Montgolfiere' hot-air type and the 'Charliere' gas balloon was soon resolved – for the Montgolfiere was a delicate craft while the Charliere was much more robust. And so, for nearly two centuries, the gas balloon was to rule the lighter-than-air roost.


Pilatre de Rozier, thought he could combine the best virtues of the two types and mounted a gas balloon above a cylinder containing hot-air for his attempt to fly the English Channel in 1785. Unfortunately he had not appreciated the dangers of having highly explosive hydrogen in the proximity of the flames and his balloon was destroyed near the French coast. The first aeronaut became the first fatality of air travel.


The novelty value of ballooning could not be denied, but as a means of transport it left much to be desired as they could only fly where the vagaries of the wind took them. By the early nineteenth century the balloon had become a public entertainment taken from town to town by the showmen where they would be displayed and flown before the paying public. As even this novelty began to wear off and the audiences – and consequently the showmen – grew thinner they resorted to ever greater stunts taking their horses and even their wives aloft!


The Victorians applied their minds to the balloon and adventurers and scientists continued to push the boundaries flying further and higher than ever before. Charles Green was probably the most famous of the Victorian aeronauts. He financed his passion for ballooning with public displays and passenger pleasure flights from London's fashionable public gardens, and in 1836 he made an epic flight taking off from the Vauxhall Gardens and flying all the way to Nassau in Germany.

For the scientists, balloons represented the only way of taking their experiments aloft and as they explored the upper levels they took their balloons higher and higher. Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher were to fly higher than intended when they both fell victim to hypoxia – or lack of oxygen – at nearly 30,000 feet. Glaisher passed into unconsciousness and it was left to Coxwell to fight his increasingly dimmed senses and numb limbs to pull the gas valve line with his teeth, releasing just enough gas to bring them safely back to earth. Other high flyers were not always so lucky.


By the turn of the century the balloon had seen many applications. Most notably the military had discovered their value as observational platforms and they were used very successfully by Napoleon in 1794 and later in the American Civil War and also the Boer War in South Africa. Balloons had also been used by the Parisians to escape from the Prussian siege in 1870 and to carry with them mail and also carrier pigeons to send messages back into the city.

Bigger and bigger balloons had been built to entertain and carry the public at the big expositions that flourished in Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Even the new science of photography took to the skies and aerial photography was born. But no one had yet devised an effective means of propelling and steering the balloon.


The problem in building a steerable or 'dirigible' balloon was finding a source of propulsion which was powerful enough yet also light enough to be carried. Henri Giffard had successfully flown his small steam-driven airship as early as 1852, but it lacked power and the idea of a steam engine puffing away underneath a bag of hydrogen wasn't the way to go. Other experimenters tried the new-fangled electric motors, but again the required ratio of power to weight wasn't there. It remained for a retired Prussian cavalry officer to come up with the right formula. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had been intrigued by balloons since he first came across them while serving in America during the Civil War. His idea was to string several balloons together to form a more steerable sausage shape and, by combining this with the new internal combustion engines being developed at that time, the Zeppelin airship was born.

The first of his craft, 420 feet long and consisting of several gas cells surrounded by a lightweight aluminum framework covered in canvas, flew from Lake Constance in July 1900. It was the first of many and while these first craft were somewhat accident prone, the Zeppelin grew from strength to strength and provided the first regular passenger air service, a military 'terror' weapon during the First World War and finally the silver transatlantic airships of the 1920s and early 30s. But that's another story...


Meanwhile ballooning had been taken up by the new playboys of the Edwardian era and balloon meetings and races became all the rage among the rich young men. The greatest of these races was the annual long distance race organized by the American publishing tycoon Gordon Bennett. Started in 1906 these continued with great success until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1979 they were revived but by then the gas balloon was being usurped by its old rival... hot-air was back!


The first of the modern hot-air balloons flew in 1953 and since then there has been a remarkable resurgence of hot-air activity. This has largely been brought about by the marriage of two technologies - lightweight and airtight nylon fabrics, and new powerful burners which burn liquid propane to heat the balloon. All over the world colorful flotillas now dot the sky - including many ingenious special shape balloons in the form of everything from beer bottles to flying cows. Nowadays thousands of people throughout the world enjoy the sights and pleasures of going ballooning.
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