A Quick History of Ballooning and Modern Hot Air Driven Gadgets

In fact, the history of aviation and flight always fascinated humanity since the tale of Icarus and Daedalus. Today, flying is no more something extraordinary and available for everyone who pays the required money. Whether it is helicopters, jumbo-jets, private jets, private jet hire or fighter jets humanity dreamt of flying and indeed realized it nowadays. However, we often forget that the first steps were not easy - especially in the domain of ballooning. The history of ballooning, both with hot air and gas, now spans many centuries. Indeed, this fascinating technical achievement and its visionaries were already in play before Christ. However, until the challenge was completed, the history of ballooning know many firsts, including the first misfortunes, the first human flights, first flights to North America and over the English Channel, and, of course, the first major aircraft disasters.

Pre-Modern and Unmanned Balloon-Flights in Ancient China

Already 220 - 280 AD hot air balloons were a popular topic in ancient China. Several Chinese kings and famous warlords used airborne lanterns for military signaling for instance. Such lanterns were later known as the Kongming lanterns.

Ballooning in Europe came much later into play. In fact, the first balloon was let gone in 1709 in Lisbon, Portugal. A man called Bartolomeu de Gusmao managed to lift a small balloon made of paper full of hot air about four meters. The Portuguese king as well as the Portuguese court were witnesses and great respect followed Bartolomeu over the next years. This even is, according to old documents, the first and earliest recorded model balloon flight known until that time.

The next Attempts: First hydrogen Balloons

In 1766 the world-famous Henry Cavendish published his pioneering essay on hydrogen. Based on this, the Professor Jacques Charles who has studies Cavendish's work for years, conceived the idea that hydrogen would be a suitable lifting agent for balloons and consequently Charles used this notion for designing and constructing the first hydrogen balloon. The Robert brothers, who worked closely with Charles, invented the methodology which was the construction of the lightweight-principle everybody knows today: airtight gas bags. How did they do it? In fact the principle was quite facile. They dissolved rubber in a solution of turpentine and varnished the sheets of silk that were stitched together to make the main envelope. Indeed, this led to another characteristic even children associate with ballooning nowadays: the red and white coloration as the Brothers used alternate strips of red and white silk which left a red and yellow result due to the varnishing and rubberizing processes.

On August 27 in 1783 Charles and the Robert brothers launched the world's first balloon filled with hydrogen (in fact they launched from the Champ the Mars, an area on which later the Eiffel Tower was constructed). The famous Benjamin Franklin was witness to this beside a huge crowd that enjoyed the spectacle.

How did the balloon work? In comparison to modern balloons this one was relatively small. It was 35 cubric metre sphere of rubberized silk and only capable of lifting about 9kg. However, it was filled with hydrogen which was gained by pouring almost a quarter of a tone of sulphuric acid onto half a tone of scrap iron. The hydrogen gas was fed into the envelope through lead pipes. One of the "child-problems" however was, that it had not yet a cooling system. Therefore, the gas got quite hot when it was produced but contracted drastically when it cooled down.

The balloon was able to fly 45 minutes long in which it passed distance worth of 4 kilometers.

The First unmanned Flight in the History of Ballooning

A sheep, a duck and a rooster were the first living "persons" that enjoyed the pleasure of being in a balloon high up in the air. The world-famous Montgolfier Brothers launched their balloon Aerostat Réveillon on 19th of September 1783, including those animals. King Louis the 16th and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were witnesses to this spectacle. The Montgolfier brothers were clever and applied the principles of scientific methodology: The sheep was believed to have a reasonable approximation of human physiology. The duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted aloft. It was included as a control for effects created by the aircraft rather than the altitude. And the rooster was included as a further control as it was a bird that did not fly at high altitudes.

In summary this balloon flew for eight minutes, three kilometers long and reached an altitude of 460 meters. It landed safely and the animals were not hurt.

First Attempts to Fly with Humans

France is also the birthplace of the first manned flight in a balloon. Again the Brothers Montgolfier were pioneers in that respect that they were the first to carry passengers using hot air to generate buoyancy. How did they know what buoyancy is and how to use it? The answer for the Brothers was quite simple: they had observed ash rising in paper fires (the Montgolfier family traditionally was a family of paper manufacturers). After having demonstrated that the technique works and that they were able to transport animals in a balloon over a distance of several kilometers and at an altitude of several hundred meters they now aimed at doing the same with humans. And in fact they managed to do so. The first free flight with human passengers was on 21 November 1783. Monsieur Rozer along with Marquis Francois d'Arlandes were the first passengers, entering the hot air balloons (King Louis the 16th originally wanted to use condemned criminals for the project but was eventually convinced not to do that). The first hot air balloons were essentially cloth bags with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. Therefore it is not surprising that they were susceptible to catching fire, often upon landing. However, this did not occur very often. Such pioneering work of the Montgolfier Brothers that had managed to invent a hot air balloon that could carry both animals and human beings successfully eventually found its major recognition by this type of balloon being named Montgolfère after them.

First Manned Flight in a Hydrogen Balloon

Just shortly after this spectacle Jacques Charles and the Robert Brothers managed to launch a new manned hydrogen balloon in Paris. The crowd yelled of excitement. Jacques Charles was pilot of the hydrogen-filled balloon. The envelope in this case was fitted with a hydrogen release valve and was covered with a net from which the basket was suspended - quite similar to those balloons we have nowadays. They also had sand ballast to control the altitude - another milestone in the history of ballooning. In total the balloon managed to reach the altitude of 550 meters and flew for more than 2 hours long, covering 36 kilometers. In another try the same balloon ascended to about 3000 meters - a new world record.

New Inventions New Challenges

Such new extraordinary inventions also led to new challenges. It was again in France when Jean-Pierre Blanchard saw it as his next great challenge to fly across the English Channel - he managed to do on January 7, 1785.

However, that was also the time when the first major aircraft disaster occurred. In May 1785 a balloon crashed down in Tullamore, Ireland and seriously damaged the village. More than a 100 houses caught fire and burned down, making the town home to the world's first aviation disaster.

In the following years Blanchard searched for new challenges and found it in his try to fly a balloon in the United States. On January 10, 1793 Blanchard entered his hydrogen balloon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He reached about 1,770 meters and landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey. President George Washington was among the guests observing the spectacle.

Between the 1790s and 1960s gas balloons became the most common types of balloons used. The first balloon driven by a steam engine (it was very slow but effective) was flown by Henri Giffard in 1852. Paul Haenlein flew the first internal combustion motor-powered balloon in 1872. And Alberto Santos Duman was the first to fly in an untethered airship powered by an internal combustion engine in 1898.

Ballooning in the 20th century

During the Second World War balloons were especially used as shields in London against the attacks of the German Luftwaffe. They had the task to obstruct any incoming fighter plane. Although their effectiveness was debatable, they were a cheap protection.

Hydrogen balloons were used particularly in upper atmosphere research projects during the first half of the 20th century. Thus they more and more were used to execute research projects in the air. However, they more and more lost their prestige as new planes and jets, companies were invented and became products of mass production and private jet hire companies became reachable for people. Some people were still into ballooning and sought further pioneering challenges such as the first balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean or the first to circumnavigate the world. Both were successfully done around the 1950s.

Ballooning in Modern Times

Modern hot air balloons with an onboard heat source were pioneered by Ed Yost in the second half of the 20th century. The first successful flight was on October 22 1960. However, high-altitude balloons working with hot air are nowadays primarily used for recreation. They more and more lose their attraction and are today more the work of adventurers or researchers.