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The Brief But Spectacular Era of Balloon Mania
Inside the 18th century obsession with hot air ballooning
Unless you’re a dedicated balloon hobbyist, your experience with hot-air ballooning is probably pretty limited. Maybe you’ve been to one of those festivals where you look at lots of balloons in the air, or maybe you’ve been up in one yourself once or twice. For most of us, balloons seem like a whimsical hobby, romantic and picturesque.
A few hundred years ago, balloons were anything but a gentle, pleasant way to spend an afternoon. They were at the forefront of technology. They represented adventure, danger, and the drive to explore the unknown. They were vehicles that allowed people to, for the first time in history, ascend into the heavens.
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By the Middle Ages, Chinese inventors had figured out that hot air made lanterns rise into the sky. “Sky lanterns” — smallish envelopes, usually made of paper, with a flame at the bottom — came in handy for a lot of things. People used them at festivals to light the sky, and sky lanterns became an important tool for military communication across long distances.
Nobody seemed to think about using balloons to take people into the sky until the 1600s. By that point, Galileo had found that air had weight, which had caused people to wonder if there was anything lighter than air. If such a thing existed, it might be possible to float up into the sky, just as a bubble rises through water.
Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit priest, sketched designs for an airship that could take humans into the air, based on the most impressive travel technology of the time: the ship. His idea wasn’t to use heat; instead, he thought he could create vacuums inside metal spheres, making them lighter than air. He thought it might look like this:
Bartolomeu de Gusmão, a Portuguese-Brazilian Jesuit priest, was the first to envision taking people into the sky with hot air. He experimented with small balloons, impressing the King of Portugal in 1709 by making a sky lantern soar to the ceiling of the royal court. The king then commissioned him to work on larger flying machines. Gusmão devised the Passarola — which he sketched out but never attempted to build — essentially, a bird-shaped boat that would be lifted by a sail:
In order to take human flight from the realm of the fantastical to the possible, inventors needed to solve several technical problems. Most importantly, they needed to figure out the best way to make a gas lighter than air, and they needed to be able to make a container for that air that would be light, durable, and spacious. Both of these problems would be solved in France, which had become a hotbed of balloon technology by the late 1700s.
The first problem, how to make gas lighter than air, had two solutions, represented by two groups of inventors. First, you could heat the air — this, after all, had been the solution discovered a millennium before in China, and it’s how Bartolomeu de Gusmão had wowed his king (nobody knew why this worked, by the way — many thought that smoke or ash was what propelled balloons upward). But research in chemistry and physics had revealed that gases that were lighter than air — most notably hydrogen.
The hot-air devotees, led by the brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier had an early lead in the race. They had watched fire ashes lift into the air and wondered whether the smoke — which they thought was a lighter-than-air product of the fires — could lift people, too. They experimented with small balloons, then larger ones made of burlap sealed with several layers of paper inside.
Finally, they launched the first unmanned hot-air balloon in June 1783 at Annonay, France, in front of a crowd of dignitaries. The balloon — without a basket or any kind of payload — ascended several thousand feet over the course of about 10 minutes.
As you can see in the postcard above, these launches were a big deal. They attracted large crowds, including a lot of important figures. They were like the space launches of their day — an expedition into the unknown, a daring test of cutting-edge technology, and a window into a future once thought impossible.
The hydrogen users weren’t far behind. There were two problems with hydrogen. First, it was difficult to obtain (early hydrogen balloonists got their hydrogen by pouring acid on metal and collecting the gases that were given off). Second, it was flammable. But it did have a significant advantage in that it didn’t need to be constantly heated.
So a French scientist named Jacques Charles designed a balloon made of silk with a rubber coating and painstakingly filled it with hydrogen in central Paris. This took days, and it became a curiosity; crowds gathered and gawked at the slowly inflating balloon.
When Charles finally launched his craft — again, with a crowd of important people in attendance, including Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France at the time — it flew a little better than the Montgolfiers’ effort, traveling several miles over 45 minutes. But when the balloon landed, local farmers attacked and destroyed it.
So it looked like balloons, whether filled with hydrogen or hot air, might be capable of taking humans into the sky for the first time in our history. But… would humans survive up there? Traveling several thousand feet into the atmosphere was as uncertain an endeavor as space travel would seem to the people of the 1950s. And, just as they did in the 1950s, people made animals go up first.
Once the Montgolfiers were reasonably certain that they could lift several hundred pounds of payload into the sky, they began looking for candidates for the first flight. King Louis XVI suggested sending condemned criminals up (such a loveable guy; it’s hard to understand why people overthrew him a few years later). Instead, the brothers settled on three animals: a sheep (which was thought to have similar anatomy to humans), a duck (which, as a bird that could fly, was expected to be fine), and a rooster (which, as a flightless bird, was something of a wild card).
The animals were strapped into a basket and launched into the sky; they flew for 8 minutes, landing a couple of miles away. Though the sheep kicked the rooster, they were otherwise fine. It seemed reasonably safe for humans to fly.
Then the race between the Montgolfiers and Charles intensified. The hot-air solution won, but only just. In October 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, after securing the King’s permission, conducted manned, tethered flights. They ascended a few dozen feet, as far as the ropes that held them down would reach.
Finally, it was time for the real test — a free, untethered flight that would take intrepid aeronauts thousands of feet in the air. Remember, there was no science of weather prediction at the time, which meant that these men were signing up to be blown wherever the winds went.
The balloon they flew was quite something. It wasn’t just a utilitarian scientific instrument, it was designed to match what the brothers thought was the significance of the event. The balloon was royal blue, with elaborate red drapery and various zodiac figures ringing the top. The brothers knew how to cury favor — the balloon was also adorned with royal symbols like the fleur-de-lis and the king’s face (represented, of course, as the sun):
On November 21, 1783, two aeronauts, a physicist and a nobleman, traveled five miles in about half an hour; they could have gone farther, but they decided to land when the fire that was heating the balloon became dangerous; embers were lodging in the fabric and starting little fires.
Again, Jacques Charles and his hydrogen balloon came in a close second. His first manned flight took place on December 1, just a couple of weeks after the Montgolfiers’. Charles himself went up, accompanied by Nicolas-Louis Robert, one of his co-designers. Though this wasn't the first manned flight, it was still a big deal. Balloon mania had swept France; contemporary reports estimated that as many as 400,000 people gathered in front of the Tuileries Palace to see Charles and Robert ascend into the heavens.
You might argue that ballooning was a dead end. We don’t use balloons for much these days, outside of recreation, weather balloons, and the odd Chinese spy balloon. We don’t travel the skies in zeppelins.
But the people of France didn’t know that in the 1780s. They thought they were witnessing the birth of a new age, one in which anyone could ascend gracefully into the sky, borne aloft by nothing but cloth and air.
Ballooning became a popular obsession, especially in its homeland of France. One man wrote,
Among all our circle of friends, at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky.
Horace Walpole said it more succinctly: “Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody.”
Balloons were everywhere, especially on consumer goods. It seemed that everybody wanted images of balloons in their homes.
They adorned snuffboxes:
They were on watches:
And they were on tea caddies:
Even far from France, you could find images of balloons everywhere. In Japan, a country that wouldn’t have its own manned balloon launch for almost a century, you could buy a hot-air balloon plate, manufactured in 1797:
It’s not hard to see why ballooning captured the public imagination in the 1700s. It was, of course, an important first. But there’s something that still captivates about these images.
In many of these images, the eye is drawn to the ground first — that is, after all, our mundane human realm. But then we notice something suspended up in the air, something that shouldn’t be there. The balloon floats peacefully in the blue, improbably weightless, a testament to the human spirit of inquiry and adventure.
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