The History of Hot Air Ballooning

Above the duck, the balloon, constructed of paper and fabric, provided the lift necessary to carry aloft the duck and its companions, (a sheep and a rooster). Never before had a human, let alone a duck, flown in a balloon.

A new vehicle was born to the world in 1783. The new machine was one which raised men off the surface of the earth and carried them sailing upon “that uninterrupted navigable ocean that comes to the threshold of every man’s door”.

The selection of balloon prints to the right has not been put together for its historical or aeronautical significance – although such appeals are not lacking – but quite simply from the point of view of their pictorial quality.

Balloons with their differing shapes and colours are for many people charming and entertaining objects. When seen by the artists and engravers of the eighteenth century and the Regency, they take on an added period flavour and such balloon pictures have now won their own small renown among collectors.

Of the two types of balloon invested in 1783, the Montgolfieres (hot air) were often more elaborately decorated than the Charlieres (hydrogen). Balloon prints, like all other categories of engravings and lithography, are subject to collectors’ whims and include the common, the not so common and the rare, but again as with so many other kinds – the rarity bears no relation to decorative quality and no special attention has been paid here to financial or rarity considerations.

A balloon is in essence a simple affair and consists of an envelope containing a gas weighing less than the surrounding air, which therefore causes the envelope to rise in the atmosphere like a cork. The concept of aerostation (lighter-than-air flight) only appeared in western civilisation late in the Middle Ages.

It is strange to consider how many billions of men and women had to watch the burning debris of a fire mount up with the smoke and flames before two French paper-makers of Annonay, near Lyons, drew the correct conclusions and thought of the hot-air balloon. A full sized man-carrying balloon could have been made successfully at any time since the invention of light textile fabrics, which date back many years before Christ, but the appropriate collision of ideas and circumstance had to wait until the end of the 18th century.

It is now believed that a Jesuit Priest – the Portuguese Father Gusmao – thought out the idea correctly and made a miniature hot-air balloon as early as 1709, but the significance of the event was lost on his contemporaries and he never went on with his work. The brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere first though of their hot-air balloon in 1782, sent up a small version at Annonay in June of 1783, a full-sized man-carrying example in the following September and saw their balloon make the first free aerial voyage of all time at Paris on November 21st, manned by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes.

On December 1st of that same year 1873 Professor Charles and one of the Robert brothers made the first free voyage in a hydrogen balloon, a type of aerostat which Charles had brilliantly invented in almost a modern form a few weeks before. The hot-air balloon – know as a Montgolfiere – was suspended limp between two masts and inflated by having her neck held over a fire beneath the take-off platform, another fire was lit in a brazier and then slung in the neck of the balloon to provide a continuous supply of hot air on the voyage. Altitude was controlled by stoking or damping down the brazier fire.

The hydrogen balloon – Charliere – was also hung for inflation between masts in the early days and its long thin neck attached to the primitive apparatus in which sulphuric acid was passed over iron filings to make the gas. Altitude was controlled by dropping ballast or valving the gas through the crown of the envelope, although the neck was also left open so that the gas – expanding as the balloon rose – could blow off harmlessly without bursting the envelope. Coal gas came into use later and – in our own day – helium, which has the great advantage of being non-inflammable.