All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


BALLOONS. "Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world" (Gillispie, 1983, p, 17). These were the words of Joseph Montgolfier (17401810) to his brother Étienne (17451799) in 1782, and he was right: the hot-air balloon would soon astonish the world. It rose in public for the first time on 4 June 1783 in Annonay, a small town in southeastern France, and again before the royal family at Versailles on 19 September. Considerably larger than the original at 17.4 meters in height and 12.5 meters in diameter, this second model, equipped with a basket containing a sheep, a rooster, and a duck, reached an altitude of 470 meters and traveled about 3,300 meters. Astronomers armed with quadrants measured the flight, and veterinarians determined that the animals had not suffered ill effects during their ten-minute journey. On 21 November, with a huge crowd present, two "aeronauts" ushered in the era of manned flight. Contemporaries believed that men had acquired a new, visible mastery of the material world and thereby shortened the distance between themselves and the gods.

Joseph Montgolfier hailed from a substantial family of paper manufacturers, and hence it is not surprising that the Annonay balloon was a large bag of sackcloth lined with thin layers of paper. Whereas his brother Étienne was carefully educated in mechanics and mathematics, a sort of industrial architect "steeped in the science" of his craft, Joseph was a largely self-tutored visionary. Still, theirs was a technologically deft and ambitious family, who considered the "vast majority" of their fellow papermakers as "simple workmen" hamstrung by "blind routine." The Montgolfiers, however, experimented restlessly with their art and believed that they would find new technologies to improve their industry; the balloon did not arise from technological innocence. Moreover, the novel science of the day was also within the Montgolfiers' grasp: Joseph was aware that Henry Cavendish had isolated inflammable air (hydrogen) in 1766 and that Joseph Priestley had detected dephlogisticated air (oxygen) eight years later.

Invisible forces, including Isaac Newton's gravity and Benjamin Franklin's electricity, were in the air during the twilight of the Old Regime. But the Montgolfiers soon turned away from relatively expensive hydrogen to boost their device. Instead, their attention focused on heating the air until it was sufficiently rarefied to propel the balloon. (Joseph evidently believed that this process was accompanied by a chemical transformation, rather than simply by the expansive power of heat, which yielded a distinctively light, hence propulsive, gas.) Meanwhile, J.-A.-C. Charles, a popular lecturer in experimental physics, released a hydrogen balloon on the Champ de Mars in Paris on 27 August 1783. Mistakenly assuming that the Montgolfiers had also relied on hydrogen, Charles thought that he was merely replicating the brothers' feat. But rather than a rarefied royal entourage, Charles's device was subsidized by a subscription and its ascent witnessed by a throng of perhaps fifty thousand spectators. The balloon craze had taken off.

"One hundred thousand souls, at least," supposedly wept, cheered, and fainted as a balloon levitated over Nantes in the summer of 1784. Already in December 1783, the chancellor of the Academy of Dijon warned his colleagues that "the public would be astonished that in a town which flourishes in the sciences and the arts, no one has attempted to repeat the wonderful experiments of the Montgolfiers" (Gillespie, p. 259). Emboldened by a provincial zeal to emulate the capital's achievements, the Dijon society sought funds for the construction of a balloon; on 25 April 1784, the chancellor and a companion floated triumphantly to an altitude of 3,200 meters over the city. A wave of barnstorming ensued, as men like J.-F. Blanchard, who raised the funds for his Parisian ascent through newspaper solicitations, capitalized on the craze. Blanchard, in fact, replicated his feat in Rouen, in England, and in North America. Even ballooning's first two casualties, the victims of an attempt to cross the English Channel in 1785, took only some of the air out of the mania. And countless prints turned these men into martyrs, among technology's first, while those aeronauts who returned home were paraded through town like conquering heroes.

They were conquerors. In the frenzy for lightning rods and balloon flight, awe was linked to mastery and uncoupled from fear. Whereas portents and prodigies once signaled the Lord's ungovernable wrath, lightning rods, balloons, and the recent effective harnessing of water vapor as a source of motive power were expressions of growing human dominion over the earth and its forces, and of the power of untrammeled reason. This maturing capacity was celebrated in verse inspired by balloon flight. Meanwhile, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler's last calculation explored the "laws of vertical motion of a globe rising in calm air in consequence of the upward force owing to its lightness" (Gillespie, 1983, p. 32): the earliest recorded mathematical rendering of the flight of aircraft.

Étienne Montgolfier's dream of a commercial fleet of balloons did not materialize during his lifetime. English entrepreneurs largely ignored the device, leaving the field to adventurers and popular entertainment; nor was English science deeply concerned with ballooning. But the Paris Academy of Sciences, the central scientific institution in France, avidly considered principles and practices of aeronautical engineering, pursued effective and inexpensive gas fuels, and considered military applications. For these reasons, and even more the technological awe and optimism it helped to ignite, the Montgolfiers' hot-air balloon deserves to be considered among the macroinventions of the first industrial revolution, alongside the steam engine, the Jacquard loom, and gas lighting.

See also Chemistry ; Enlightenment ; Technology .


Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. New York, 1968. Excellent discussion of popular science.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 11501750. New York, 1998. Encyclopedic account of marvels and their meaning in European history.

Gillespie, Richard. "Ballooning in France and Britain, 17831786: Aerostation and Adventurism." Isis 75 (1984): 249268. Clear account of the balloon craze and different national responses to the invention.

Gillispie, Charles. The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation, 17831784. Princeton, 1983. Authoritative account of the invention and diffusion of the balloon.

. Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime. Princeton, 1980. Exhaustive account of French science and technology during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York, 1990. Combines valuable narrative with daring analysis.

Rosenband, Leonard. Papermaking in Eighteenth-Century France: Management, Labor, and Revolution at the Montgolfier Mill, 17611805. Baltimore, 2000. Concise yet evocative account of the Montgolfiers' practice of an earthbound industry.

Leonard N. Rosenband

views updated


BALLOONS. The advent and use of balloons spans the history of the United States and has made substantial contributions to science, military technology, and entertainment.

The notion of ballooning gained acceptance in the seventeenth century, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that the first designs were successfully tested. In France in 1783 the Robert brothers built the first hydrogen balloon, designed by Jacques Charles. Later in the year, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their own designs, one of which lifted two noblemen, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François d'Arlandes, on the first human flight.

News of such experiments reached the United States, and several projects were tested in Philadelphia. One of these projects, that of Peter Carnes, was a tethered balloon that successfully lifted thirteen-year-old Edward Warren in Baltimore on 24 June 1784. The experiment also suggests that Carnes had successfully solved most of the problems associated with early ballooning without access to information about the French designs. But it was not until January 1793 that an American untethered manned balloon flight took place, when the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard traveled from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey.

During the Civil War both the Union and the Confederacy made use of ballooning for observation purposes. In the North, Thaddeus Lowe distinguished himself through his enthusiasm and his capacity for convincing authority figures, including President Lincoln, who authorized him to organize what Lowe would later call "the Aeronautic Corp." Lowe had seven balloons built (an-other three may have been added to the inventory later on) and enlisted the help of several fellow balloonists. His team provided valuable intelligence. Both the army and navy would make use of ballooning units until World War II.

Ballooning also found an application in the realm of science. In the late nineteenth century, atmospheric measurements were undertaken to further meteorological knowledge, and the practice was carried on through the use of unmanned sounding balloons.

In the twentieth century new balloon models set altitude records. Travel into the stratosphere was first achieved in 1931 by the Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard aboard a Belgian-funded balloon, and U.S. balloonists soon followed suit at the "Century of Progress" exhibit in Chicago in 1933. Two years later two army aeronauts aboard Explorer II, a helium-filled balloon, set an altitude record by reaching 72,395 feet and sent radio broadcasts from their pressurized gondola. In 1962 high altitude ballooning enabled the highest parachute jump ever, from 113,739.9 feet. NASA was also involved in the use of high-altitude balloons. In 1966, for example, it worked with the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories to launch a mylar crib balloon to an altitude of 139,800 feet before deflating it to test a parachute recovery for a possible landing on Mars.

By far the biggest application for balloons today is the recreational use of hot-air balloons. In the early twentieth century, aerial races such as the Gordon Bennett Cup captivated the general public, but the sport remained an expensive and dangerous undertaking. Tests of various plastics after World War II yielded promising results (partly because they are cheaper to produce and can be sealed easily), and in 1955 Ed Yost built a thirty-nine-foot-diameter polyethylene balloon in his backyard and added a multiple-burner propane heater to inflate it. In 1960 he completed the first successful modern hot-air balloon flight, ascending to 9,300 feet before landing three hours and fifteen minutes later. His design included a "rip panel" that allows quick deflation for rapid descent, first imagined in 1859 by John Wise. In the early 1950s Don Piccard, Robert McNair, and Peter Wood formed the Balloon Club of America, which became part of the new Balloon Federation of America in 1961. The largest balloon gathering is the annual World Hot Air Balloon Championship.

Though much more expensive, some helium balloons have been used for long-range flights. Several such flights have set new records and received wide publicity. Among them were the first Atlantic crossing, in 1978 aboard Double Eagle II; the first Pacific crossing, in 1981 aboard Double Eagle V; Joe Kittinger's solo transatlantic flight in 1984; and Steve Fossett's round-the-world flight in 2002.


Baldwin, Munson. With Brass and Gas: An Illustrated and Embellished Chronicle of Ballooning in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. Boston: Beacon, 1967.

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Devorkin, David H. Race to the Stratosphere: Manned Scientific Ballooning in America. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Jackson, Donald Dale. The Aeronauts. Alexandria, Va.: Time Life, 1980.

Guillaumede Syon

views updated


The brothers Joseph Michel Mont-golfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier launched the air age on 4 June 1783 when they flew a hot air balloon measuring thirty-five feet in diameter from the town square of Annonnay, France. Over the next seven months, one spectacular ascent followed another, culminating in the first free flight of human beings from Paris in both a hot air balloon (21 November 1783) and a hydrogen gas-filled balloon developed and flown by Jacques Alexandre César Charles (1 December 1783). A number of Americans in France, including Benjamin Franklin and the other diplomats negotiating the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution, witnessed these events and spread the news in letters and pamphlets sent to friends and family across the Atlantic.

American newspapers carried the first articles describing these pioneering flights as early as November 1783. Dr. John Foulke, recently returned to Philadelphia from Paris, launched small balloons to the delight of the crowds attending his lectures in May 1784. Peter Carnes, a lawyer and innkeeper from Bladensburg, Maryland, unveiled his American Aerostatic Balloon in June 1784. Standing thirty-five feet tall, the craft was too small to lift the portly inventor. He did, however, send thirteen-year-old Edward Warren up on a tethered flight from Baltimore on 24 June. Just a month later, the Massachusetts Spy, or, Worcester Gazette (22 July 1784), reported that "the taste for Air Balloon matters has grown to such an extravagant pitch that nothing can pretend to have any intrinsic value in it, unless it has this name as an appendage."

Dr. John Jeffries, a Boston-born Loyalist living in England, became the first American to make a free flight on 30 November 1784, when he ascended from London, England, with the French aeronaut J. P. F. Blanchard. The two men made the first balloon flight across the English Channel on 7 January 1785. Blanchard

later made the first free, or untethered, flight in the United States, ascending from Philadelphia on 9 January 1793 before a large crowd that included President George Washington and members of his cabinet. Blanchard traveled to a safe landing in Woodbury, New Jersey.

The French created a military balloon corps that saw active service from 1794 to 1799. As early as 1804, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascended to an altitude of over twenty thousand feet to study conditions in the upper atmosphere. In antebellum America, Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, encouraged the use of balloons to study meteorology and as aerial observation platforms in time of war. For the most part, however, ballooning remained the province of itinerant aerial showmen who traveled across the nation, performing feats of aerial derring-do, or setting off on long-distance balloon voyages whenever and wherever they could collect a crowd of paying spectators to witness an ascent.

The popularity of ballooning as mass entertainment was established by European aeronauts, notably Louis-Charles Guille and Eugene Robertson, who toured the United States between 1819 and 1834. Charles Ferson Durant, a native New Yorker who understudied Robertson, emerged as the first American-born aeronautical professional. He inaugurated a "golden age" of ballooning in the United States with a number of notable ascents in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere from 1830 to 1834. Pennsylvanian John Wise, who made some 463 ascents during forty-four years as an aeronaut, and Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, who organized and led a balloon corps that operated with the Union Army from 1861 to 1863, were the best-known American airmen active before 1860.

See alsoTravel, Technology of .


Crouch, Tom D. Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Rolt, L. T. C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783–1983. New York: Walker, 1966.

Tom D. Crouch

More From

You Might Also Like