A Short History of Hot Air Ballooning


     On November 5, 1782, in Avignon, France, Joseph Montgolfier, while watching smoke rise from a fire, and carrying with it pieces of ash, thought that if he could capture enough smoke in a container of some sort, that it may be able to lift some weight. After some simple experiments, with folded pieces of paper placed above the fire, confirmed his suspicions, he wrote to his younger brother, Etienne, in Annonay to “prepare a large quantity of taffeta and string. I will show you the most astonishing thing in the world!” 


    Their family owned a wallpaper manufacturing business, and had plenty of material with which to experiment.  When Joseph returned to Annonay, he and his brother began their experiments.  On June 4, 1783, after many trials with encouraging results, they organized the first public exhibition.  A balloon about 36 feet in diameter was filled with smoke and heat from a fire of straw and wool reaching an internal temperature of 189.5 degrees before Joseph instructed the eight men holding it to let go.  It slowly rose to 590 feet and traveled two kilometers in the rain before gently returning to the earth. 


 . . . a ram, a duck and a chicken?


    The Academy of Sciences in Paris, upon hearing of the Montgolfier experiments, invited them to demonstrate their new invention at an exposition in Versailles. The brothers began work on their largest balloon yet, to be display on September 19, 1783 before King Louis XVI. The “Martial” was elegantly decorated and stood 57 feet high. Suspended from the balloon in a cage were a ram, a duck and a chicken, who were to be the first three aeronauts in history.



    After filling the balloon with thick black smoke from a huge fire pot built in the center of a platform and beneath the balloon, they attached the cage containing the first three aeronauts. When they released the ropes that were restraining the balloon, it rose to 1650 feet and then gently descended a little less than two miles away.  Most references of the event report that the passengers landed unharmed. Although one version reports that the chicken had a broken wing but goes on to say that the mishap was the result of the ram stepping on it and had nothing to do with the balloon. The report also points out that the three animals lived out a long life in Marie Antonettes’ Royal Zoo. 


 . . . first manned balloon flight



    On October 15, 1783, the French physicist, Jean-Francios Pilatre de Rozier, who was the curator of the Museum of Natural History, offered his services and became the first human passenger in a tethered balloon hot air balloon. This was again repeated on October 17th and 19th with longer ropes and additional passengers.



    Finally, on November 21, 1783, at Mouette Castle in the woods of Boulogne, the first manned free flight of a hot air balloon took place.  The Montgolfiers had built a beautiful new balloon for the occasion. It stood 69 feet high, was 46 feet in diameter and weighed 1595 pounds fully loaded. This balloon had a fire pot or burner suspended in the center of the mouth with a large gallery surrounding it which held the straw or hay and wool fuel and water.  The two aeronauts were seated on each side to maintain balance.  The beautiful balloon was made of cotton cloth soaked in alum to make it less porous and more flame retardant. It was elegantly decorated with the royal insignia and astrological symbols.  Pilatre de Rozier was joined by Marquis de Arlandes, leader of the armed forces, at the order of King Louis XVI.  After a short tethered “test flight”, which resulted in some damage to the envelope due to the wind, and the repair which took less than two hours, the balloon majestically lifted from the ground in front of an estimated crowd of 500,000 spectators, among them Benjamin Franklin. It ascended to over 2950 feet as it crossed the Seine. When it began to descend the two aeronauts fed the fire with more hay and wool. Despite large holes burned in the balloon from sparks and the fire, they again rose and eventually landed, unharmed, in the countryside near Coulbarbe Mill, twenty-five minutes and five miles from where they first ascended. 


     Over the next half century, many “smoke balloon" flights took place in many different countries but this mode of transportation, although quite intriguing, was not very practical and slowly died out due to the lack of a controllable heat source.  The science was still quite new and many of the early experimenters attributed the “magic” lift to the smoke and not the heat resulting in the frequent references to "smoke balloons."  The open fire pot in the middle of the platform with its hot embers and rising ashes and sparks resulted in holes being burned in the balloon envelope and was also quite dangerous on a windy day, especially when landing in a dry grassy field.  One can only imagine some of the unfortunate flights and incidents, now lost in history, of burning fields, stampeding livestock and irate farmers.  


  . . . rebirth of hot air ballooning



   On October 10, 1960, Ed Yost lifted off the ground in Bruning, Nebraska in a hot air balloon powered by a propane burner marking the beginning of the modern hot air balloon. Yost had worked with gas balloons for many years in government programs and had attained the knowledge and expertise necessary to develop and expand the science. He founded Raven Industries in 1956 with 3 partners to further the science. Between 1965 and 1968, Ed Yost, with the assistance of Don Piccard and Tracy Barnes, researched and developed hot air balloon designs which were standardized for FAA certification marking the beginning of the hot air balloon industry in the United States. England closely followed with Don Cameron founding Cameron Balloons.

 By 1978, the sport of ballooning had grown from a dozen balloons to about 500. Today, there are over a dozen manufacturers. The United States has over 8000 hot air balloons registered and over 5000 pilots. There are over 3000 balloons in Europe.