Sports: Ballooning; Hot Air and Gas-non powered Lighter-Than-Air Craft, Images by Wernher Krutein, Rick Lavine, and PHOTOVAULT®

History of Ballooning

The history of the discovery of lighter-than-air modes of flight seems like such a simple idea that it is astoundining that it took as long as it did to discover it. And even the discovery itself was somewhat accidental. In 1766, Henry Cavendish discovered what he called "inflammable air" - hydrogen, and showed it to be much lighter than the surrounding atmosphere. Thus the principle of a craft "floating in a sea of air" was born.

In 1774, Joseph Priestly wrote 'Experiments and Observations with Different Types of Air' translated into French three years later, this inspired paper manufacturer Joseph Montgolfier to start experimentation with the principles of gas volume in relation to temperature. In 1782, with his brother Etienne, he succeeded in flying small paper and cloth balloons filled with hot air. The Montgolfier brothers may not have fully understood the physical basis of the lift produced by the air. For launching, it seemed they wished to use dense choking smoke, produced from damp straw and chopped wool. For a royal demonstration at Versailles in September 1783, Joseph supplemented this with old shoes and rotting meat: "The King and Queen came up to examine the machine, but the noxious smell thus produced obliged them to retire at once"

There are three possible reasons for their fuel choice. They may have believed that dense smoke had more of the 'virtue of lightness' - a late medieval concept, or that dense smoke would be retained better inside the balloon. Or perhaps they wished to conceal the technique (or, perhaps they were just thick).

Whatever, the smell was of no concern to the brothers, as the pilots for that demonstration flight were a sheep, a cockerel, and a duck. Their safe flight dispelled fears that venturing into the upper atmosphere might prove fatal, and confirmed that you only need be as skilled as a small farmyard animal to become a pilot. The first manned flight took place on 21th November 1783. The envelope of the Montgolfier balloon was made of cotton and paper coated with alum as a form of fire-proofing. Cords sewn into the fabric carried a wicker gallery at the base. The pilots were the Marquis D'Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier, who stood at opposite sides to balance the balloon and pitchforked straw through two openings into a large brazier mounted in the neck of the balloon (for some reason, the Montgolfier brothers must have been reluctant to fly in a paper balloon with a huge straw fire at the bottom) . Each had a sponge and a bucket of water to put out fires in the envelope. The Marquis had been admiring the view of the Sienne, when Pilatre de Rozier urged him to stoke faster with the words:

"If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon. Some fire, my dear friend, some fire!"

Unfortunately, the Marquis must have heeded the words too well, as soon they noticed that the balloon envelope had burned through in several places - but they could not descend as they were still over the rooftops of Paris. They put out the fires in the envelope and tested the over-heated suspension cords: only two had broken so they put more straw in the brazier and rose again. After a flight of twenty five minutes, obtaining a height of 1000 meters, the balloon cleared Paris and landed in parkland near the present day Place d'Italie.

Meanwhile, when news of the brothers experiments reached scientist J.A.C. Charles in Paris, he started his own experiments with hydrogen gas. A small test balloon was sent off on the 27th August 1783; and by 1st December a full size version was ready, and made an equally successful ascent from Paris. However, landowner relations were also still in early development; terrified villagers pitchforked the first hydrogen balloon on landing. After this, the French government issued a proclaimation to allay public alarm about future experiments:

"Anyone who should see in the sky such a globe should be aware that, far from being an alarming phenomenon, it is only a machine made of taffetas or light canvas covered with paper, that cannot possibly cause any harm , and which will someday prove servicable to the wants of society."

News of amazing ascents in 1783 Paris paved the way for professional showmen who earned a living from public ascents, often from pleasure gardens. These spectacles attracted huge, often unruly crowds, and a riot was likely if anything went wrong to prevent departure. Balloonists sometimes took off with faulty equipment or partly inflated balloons rather than face a dissapointed mob. As the public became used to simple ascents, performances had to become more elaberate; fireworks discharged from the balloon, at considerable risk, parachute drops, ascents on horseback (?), 'giant' balloons, and the suspension of female acrobats from balloons above London by their teeth alone.

Charles' balloon was a much more practical device than the hot air balloon in the 18th century, and differed very little from the gas balloons flying today. For almost two centuries hot-air balloons were virtually ignored until the late 1950's when a balloon was built as part of a United States Government research programm. This balloon was of man-made fibres and was filled with air heated by a propane flame. The modern hot-air balloon as we know today was born.

This page contains samples from our picture files on Ballooning. These photographs are available for licensing in any media. For Pricing, General Guidelines, and Delivery information click here. You may contact us thru email or by phone for more information on the use of these images, and any others in our files not shown here. Included in the Vault are images of: Helium Balloons, Hot Air Balloons, Albuquerque Balloon Festival, King County Balloon Classic Additional photography by: Stephen McCarty, Nancy Wu, Marios Koutsourelis, Richard Neville, Jim Sunberg

See also: Dirigibles, Weather Monitoring, Clouds, SPORTS, AVIATION, TRANSPORTATION, Ballooning History, Parachuting, AVIATION, Ballooning, Hang Gliders, Ultralights, Bungee Jumping, Kites
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