The history of ballooning is the history of aviation itself. Man’s ancient dream of shrugging his earthly bonds finally took place in Paris, France in 1783. The brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier earlier noticed bits of paper would fly up the chimney. Concluding that the smoke from the fire had some magic property, they began to fill small paper bags with the smoke and watch them float away. Later they made an even larger linen bag – 105 feet in circumference – filled it with the hot smoke over a straw-fed fire, and watched it fly over a mile away.
The first passenger-carrying balloon was built and the first passengers were a duck, a rooster, and a sheep!
Since no ill effects were noticed on these first aeronauts, the time was right for the man to make the first ascent. Initially, the King of France wanted to send a criminal aloft, since his loss would not be missed. However, the Marquis d’Arlandes persuaded the King that man’s first conquest of the air should not be left to a common criminal. So on November 21, 1783, the Marquis d’Arlandes and a friend, Pilatre de Rozier, made man’s first aerial voyage.
It took place in front of a vast throng of onlookers, including the King and Queen of France. The entire city of Paris was present, and the crowd, estimated at over 400,000, could easily have been the largest gathering of people at any place in the world up to that time. They floated slowly over the city and landed safely about thirty minutes later. Thus, aviation was born. Shortly after this hot air balloon, then known as a Montgolfier, was flown, another Frenchman named Charles launched the first gas-filled balloon. It contained hydrogen, and took two passengers for a much longer flight. Soon these hydrogen balloons were flying all over Europe.
Balloons quickly replaced the rather clumsy and inefficient Montgolfiers that got their lift from the burning of straw, old shoes, and rotten meat!
Scientific studies were being made of the upper atmosphere, as well as pleasure voyages and aerial acrobatics and stunt shows. The balloons became larger and more elaborate. One, called Le Giant, had a wicker house for its passengers that measured nearly twenty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. Balloons were the rage of Europe. Races were flown in which they sometimes covered hundreds of miles. An ill-fated expedition attempted to fly a balloon to the North Pole. All the brave crew members were lost and their bodies were not recovered until thirty years later. During this time, many experiments were made in an attempt to make the balloon steerable. Everything from oars to propellers was tried unsuccessfully.
It wasn’t until the invention of a lightweight and powerful gasoline engine that man finally began to achieve some success.
The balloons were streamlined and fitted with engines, resulting in dirigibles! Now man could turn his aerial machines and even fly into the wind. But these lighter-than-air craft were soon to meet the same fate as the balloon. Across the Atlantic, the Wright brothers had been testing their heavier-than-air machines. The airplane was born and rapidly progressed to the point that balloons were left to the few free spirits that had no desire to drive through the sky in a noisy and bumpy creation of metal and wood.
Balloons nearly disappeared. Since balloons could climb higher than airplanes, some were being used for scientific experiments.
But only a handful were being flown for pleasure, and what a pleasure they were! Flights were being made over the Alps. Adventuresome aeronauts were suspended from a wicker basket 15,000 feet over the craggy, snow-covered Alpine peaks. Surely this was the way man was meant to fly!
Ballooning has made a startling comeback in the last fifteen years. This has been due to the development of tough and inexpensive nylon for the envelopes and a burner system that generates a tremendous amount of heat cheaply and efficiently. Propane gas is used in the burners. The liquid propane is fed into pre-heated coils where it vaporizes. A pilot light ignites the gas and the result is a flame that has enough heat to run a hundred furnaces for an hour, producing over six million BTUs of energy!