The history of ballooning, both with hot air and gas, spans many centuries. It includes many firsts: first human flight, first flight across the English Channel, first flight in North America, and first aircraft related disaster.
Premodern and unmanned balloons
Unmanned hot air balloons are popular in Chinese history. Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han kingdom, in the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 AD) used airborne lanterns for military signaling. These lanterns are known as Kongming lanterns (孔明灯).
There is also some speculation that hot air balloons could have been used by people of the Nazca culture of Peru some 1500 years ago, as a tool for designing the famous Nazca ground figures and lines.
The first documented balloon flight in Europe was by the Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão. On August 8, 1709, in Lisbon, Bartolomeu de Gusmão managed to lift a small balloon made of paper full of hot air about 4 meters in front of king John V and the Portuguese court.
He also made an elaborate balloon ship named Passarola (Portuguese for Big Bird) and attempted to lift himself from Saint George Castle in Lisbon, but only managed to harmlessly fall about one kilometre away. According to the Portuguese speaking community, this was the first man ever to fly in human history. However, this claim is not generally recognized by aviation historians outside the Portuguese speaking community, in particular the FAI.
First manned flight
The first clearly recorded instance of a balloon carrying passengers used hot air to generate buoyancy and was built by the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France. These brothers came from a family of paper manufacturers and had noticed ash rising in paper fires. The Montgolfier brothers gave their first public demonstration of their invention on June 4, 1783. After experimenting with unmanned balloons and flights with animals, the first tethered balloon flight with humans on board took place on October 19, 1783 with the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the manufacture manager, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and Giroud de Villette, at the Folie Titon in Paris. The first free flight with human passengers was on 21 November 1783. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but de Rozier, along with Marquis Francois d'Arlandes, successfully petitioned for the honor. The first hot air balloons were essentially cloth bags (sometimes lined with paper) with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. They were susceptible to catching fire, often upon landing, although this occurred infrequently.
Only a few days later, on December 1, 1783, Professor Jacques Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert made the first gas balloon flight, also from Paris. The hydrogen filled balloon flew to almost 2,000 feet (600 m), stayed aloft for over two hours and covered a distance of 27 miles (43 km), landing in the small town of Nesle.
The first aircraft disaster occurred in May 1785 when the town of Tullamore, County Offaly, Ireland was seriously damaged when the crash of a balloon resulted in a fire that burned down about 100 houses, making the town home to the world's first aviation disaster. To this day, the town shield depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Blanchard went on to make the first manned flight of a balloon in America on January 9, 1793. His hydrogen filled balloon took off from a prison yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The flight reached 5,800 feet (1,770 m) and landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey. President George Washington was among the guests observing the takeoff.
Gas balloons became the most common type from the 1790s until the 1960s.
The first steerable balloon (also known as a dirigible) was flown by Henri Giffard in 1852. Powered by a steam engine, it was too slow to be effective. Like heavier than air flight, the internal combustion engine made dirigibles—especially blimps—practical, starting in the late 19th century. In 1872 Paul Haenlein flew the first (tethered) internal combustion motor-powered balloon. The first to fly in an untethered airship powered by an internal combustion engine was Alberto Santos Dumont in 1898.
Henri Giffard also developed a tethered balloon for passengers in 1878 in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.
Ballooning in England
The first attempt at ballooning in England was by Signor Vincent Lunardi who ascended from Moorfields (London) in 15th September 1784.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Jeffries flew from Dover to Calais in 1785.
In the same year, a Mr Arnold went up from St Georges Fields (London), but came down in the River Thames, and a Major John Money (1752-1817) took off from Norwich, in an attempt to raise money for the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. He passed over Lowestoft at 6pm and came down about 18 miles into the North Sea and was saved by a revenue cutter about five hours later.
The first ascent in Ireland was from Ranaleigh Gardens in Dublin in 1785.
James Sadler made many flights in England, but on 9 October 1812 he came down in the sea and was rescued near Holyhead. His son, Windham Sadler was killed when he fell from a balloon in 1825. A Mr Charles Green first ascended on July 19th 1821. Liutenant Harris was killed falling from a balloon on 25 May 1824.
Charles Green and others made a number of ascents in London between 1821 and 1852. He claimed that in May 1828 he actually took his horse up with him but this was disputed, and the public had to wait until July 1850 when he lifted off from Vauxhall Gardens with a somewhat diminutive pony as his "steed". Further attempts were made in France until Madame Poitevin took off from Cremorne Gardens in London in August 1852, as "Europa on a Bull" (the bull dressed as rather a nervous "Zeus") but this led to a charge of cruelty to animals, a police case, a diplomatic dilema and general public outrage after which no animals were used.
In 1836, the “Royal Vauxhall” balloon which was used as a pleasure balloon in Vauxhall Gardens was used by Charles Green with two crew and after 18 hours came down safely at Weilburg in the German Duchy of Nassau, setting a record unbeaten till 1907
Robert Cocking, an artist, devised a parachute based upon Garnerin’s prototype (in which he had great faith) and ascended in a balloon from Vauxhall (London) on 24th July 1837 to about 1500m. The parachute failed to open properly and Cocking was killed.
The first military use of aircraft in Europe took place during the French Revolutionary Wars, when the French used a tethered hydrogen balloon to observe the movements of the Austrian army during the Battle of Fleurus (1794).
In 1811 Franz Leppich went to Napoleon and claimed that he could build a hot-air balloon that would enable the French to attack from the air. Napoleon then ordered that he be removed from French Territory. In 1812 he went to Moscow to Count Rostopchin with the same proposal. When the balloon was finally tried out, it failed to rise, and nothing more was seen of its inventor.
In Tolstoy's Novel, War and Peace Count Pyótr Kiríllovich Bezúkhov (Pierre) makes an excursion to see this balloon though he does not see it. Tolstoy also includes a letter from the sovereign Emperor Alexander I to Count Rostopchin concerning the balloon.
Hot air balloons were employed during the American Civil War. The military balloons used by the Union Army Balloon Corps under the command of Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe were limp silk envelopes inflated with coal gas (town gas) or hydrogen.
Modern hot air ballons, with an onboard heat source, were pioneered by Ed Yost beginning in the 1950s which resulted in his first successful flight on October 22, 1960. The first modern day hot air balloon to be built in the United Kingdom (UK) was the Bristol Belle in 1967. Today, hot air balloons are used primarily for recreation, and there are some 7,500 hot air balloons operating in the United States.
The first tethered balloon in modern times was made in France at Chantilly Castle in 1994 by Aérophile SA.
Published - July 2009
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