* The balloon was invented by the French late in the 18th century. It was the first machine ever built to allow people to take to the air, and it created a great deal of excitement that would last through the next century. During this pioneering period the balloon was mostly an entertainment for thrill-seekers, but it also demonstrated potential in military and scientific applications.
* Experiments with balloonlike devices were apparently performed though most of the 18th Century, but the first specific historical records of balloon flights date from 1782. In that year, a Frenchman named Joseph Montgolfier, who worked in a profitable family paper-manufacturing firm in the town of Annonay, began to build small balloons with paper envelopes that he filled with the newly-discovered light gas hydrogen. The hydrogen seeped right through the paper. He tried silk envelopes, but they didn't work any better. He finally obtained some success with balloons filled with hot air from a small furnace, then released to float up into the air. Joseph then enlisted the help of his younger brother Etienne to build larger balloons.
On 4 June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent an autonomous balloon, with a paper-lined linen envelope about 12.6 meters (41.4 feet) in diameter, on a flight of more than 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from Avignon. The news spread of their invention. In Paris, a young physicist named Professor Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles was tasked by the French Academy of Sciences to build his own balloon and validate the Montgolfiers' claims.
Charles mistakenly believed that the Montgolfier balloon used hydrogen to obtain its "lifting power", but that turned out to be a useful misperception. Charles built a hydrogen balloon with a rubber-lined silk envelope about 4 meters (13 feet) in diameter, with the work mostly performed by two Parisian craftsmen, the brothers Jean and Noel Roberts. Filling it with hydrogen was tricky. Hydrogen was produced in those days by running dilute sulfuric acid over iron filings, with the chemical reaction:
H2SO4 + Fe --> FeSO4 + H2
This process produced gas that was very hot and also contained traces of acid that ate away at the rubber lining -- but the balloon was released on 27 August 1783, floating over the countryside to the amazement of the citizenry. The balloon envelope tore open at altitude and the gasbag descended into the village of Gonesse, where peasants attacked it, believing it to be some sort of monster. However, the flight had done much to further escalate the balloon craze. The government issued a proclamation saying that more balloon flights were planned -- adding that balloons were not dangerous, and asking that people kindly not attack them.
* The Montgolfier brothers hadn't been sitting idle during this time, having been summoned to perform a balloon flight for King Louis XVI at Versailles Palace. Etienne was inflating the balloon over a fire on 14 September 1783 when a sudden squall came up and wrecked it -- but he was able to put together a new balloon, with an envelope of cotton cloth lined with paper about 12.5 meters (41 feet) in diameter, by 19 September. Although there was speculation that Etienne would himself fly in the balloon, he prudently decided to simply attach a wicker cage containing a sheep, a rooster, and a duck.
Etienne inflated the balloon over a fire fed with rotten meat, old shoes, and wet straw. This odd procedure was dictated by the Montgolfiers' mistaken idea that it was smoke itself that created the balloon's lift; that was an understandable error, but they went so far as to believe that thicker and fouler smoke had better lifting power. The flight went well, with the balloon rising to about half a kilometer and finally descending into a forest a few kilometers away. The rooster had suffered a wing injury, but a witness reported that he had seen the sheep kick the bird before the balloon left ground.
Etienne Montgolfier told Louis XIV that he planned to take a ride in a balloon soon, but the king suggested that it would be more prudent to use convicts as test passengers, with the convicts pardoned if they survived the ordeal. A 26-year-old member of the Academy of Sciences named Francois Pilatre de Rozier, a bit of a showoff and daredevil, thought it would be a disgrace for a convict to have the glory of being the first man to fly, and lobbied to obtain that honor himself. Rozier asked Francois Laurent, the Marquis de Arlandes, to plead the case to the royal court, and he did so successfully -- but then insisted that he accompany Rozier on the first flight. Laurent was not going to sit by and let Rozier have all the glory.
That wasn't a problem, since the Montgolfiers were building a balloon big enough to carry two passengers, featuring an envelope with a capacity of 1,700 cubic meters (60,000 cubic feet), a wicker gallery around the bottom, and a fire basket under the balloon to help keep it aloft. Beginning in mid-October 1783, Rozier began captive flights in the balloon, performing three more to finally reach an altitude of about 100 meters (330 feet). Laurent joined in on the last flight.
By 21 November 1783, all was ready. The weather was rough and some damage to the balloon had to be repaired, but the two "aeronauts" were ready to go by early afternoon. The flight lasted less than a half-hour, with the two men reaching an altitude of about a kilometer (3,300 feet) and traveling about 8 kilometers (5 miles). Sparks from the fire bucket had threatened to ignite the balloon during the flight, but the aeronauts had a sponge and a bucket of water for just such an emergency, and the flight was a roaring success.
* Professor Charles and the Robert brothers were not far behind, working on a hydrogen balloon with a diameter of 8 meters (26 feet). The new balloon, named LE CHARLIERE, was more sophisticated than the Montgolfier hot-air balloon. Hydrogen offered superior lifting power, and Charles developed a number of clever design innovations that would become more or less standard for future balloons.
Although his earlier test balloon had a valve at the bottom, the new man-carrying balloon was open at the neck, which allowed the pressure to equalize as the balloon rose. Since the hydrogen is lighter than air, it floated on top of the air, just as oil floats on water, and did not escape through the bottom except by a slow process of diffusion. A valve was fitted at the top of the balloon. An aeronaut could pull on a cord to release some hydrogen and allow the balloon to descend. To allow it to ascend again, the balloon carried a supply of sand ballast that could be thrown overboard. The aeronauts stood in a wicker car that was fastened to the balloon envelope by a net over the top.
The balloon was ready to take to the skies on 30 November 1783. The celebrity ambassador from America, Benjamin Franklin, was there, writing: "All Paris was out. Never before was such a philosophical experiment so magnificently attended." Charles graciously asked Etienne Montgolfier to release a small balloon to test the winds before the flight.
Charles and Noel Robert rode the balloon to an estimated altitude of about 3 kilometers (10,000 feet) on a flight lasting two hours. When the changing air pressure on his eardrums brought him a stab of pain, Charles released the valve on the top of the balloon to descend, and managed to bring the vehicle to a safe landing in a field under the moonlight. A cynical onlooker to the day's event asked Franklin: "What good is it?" -- who famously answered: "Sir, what good is a newborn baby?"
The critic was in the minority. France went completely balloon crazy; products of all sorts were built with balloon motifs, including clocks, fans, dishes, and elaborate chandeliers.
Professor Charles never flew in a balloon again. The Montgolfiers built another balloon, a big one 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter and capable of carrying six passengers. They flew it on 19 January 1784, with Rozier and Joseph Montgolfier as passengers -- it was Joseph's only flight -- but the exercise was something of a fiasco. The balloon had been damaged during testing, and the launch was a botch, with the envelope tearing open. There were no serious injuries in the crash, but the Montgolfiers decided to quit while they were ahead, give up on ballooning, and work on other things. However, they had made history; the French still refer to hot-air balloons as "montgolfieres", and it's impossible to begrudge them the right.BACK_TO_TOP
* News of the balloon flights spread widely, and by 1784 balloon flights had been performed in many countries, even far-away America. The first woman to make a balloon flight, Frenchwoman Elizabeth Thible, went aloft on 4 June 1784. The hydrogen balloon was quickly seen as generally superior to the hot-air balloon, not merely because of its greater lifting capability but because the hot-air balloons of the time tended to be ruined after a single flight. The hydrogen balloon would soon almost completely eclipse the hot-air balloon; it would take almost two centuries for hot-air balloons to revive.
The number-one problem with the balloon, an inherent difficulty that it could not overcome, was that it was very hard to control the direction of its flight. The most that could be done was raise or lower its altitude to hunt for favorable winds. Considerable effort was made in the early days to fit balloons with fans, paddles, sails, and the like in hope of obtaining some directional control, but of course these gimmicks were useless and appear silly in hindsight.
Still, it was possible to perform significant journeys in balloons. One of the adventurers who had quickly jumped on the balloon craze was Jean Pierre Blanchard, a bantam Frenchman with a big ego and a flair for self-promotion, who conducted daring balloon flights for hire. Although he was very courageous, people also found him obnoxious and tended to snipe at him. In late 1784 he went to Britain in search of new sponsors and a chance to get out of the line of fire, and there he met Dr. John Jeffries, a medical doctor.
Jeffries was originally from Boston, having been forced to flee to England because he had backed the Crown in the American Revolution. Jeffries was one of the first to consider the possibility of using the balloon to perform research, and he hired Blanchard to take him on balloon ascents, on which the good doctor carried a set of instruments to take readings; he also took air samples. He presented his results to the British Royal Society for the Advancement of Science. In modern times, Jeffries is commemorated by the "Jeffries Award" from the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, for achievements in aerospace medicine.
The English had originally been contemptuous of ballooning, thinking it just another silly French fad -- but the French were performing headline-making feats in their balloons, and so the English simply had to follow. Jeffries had a notion of performing a feat that would very much upstage the French: a crossing of the English Channel by balloon. Of course, the balloon would be piloted by a Frenchman, M. Blanchard, and so in fairness it had to fly the flags of both nations. The two balloonists began their flight on the early afternoon of 7 January 1785, flying in a hydrogen balloon with a boat-shaped gondola to provide some insurance in case they went into the drink. They almost did, but by throwing everything they could overboard to keep aloft they made it to the French shore, where they were both received as heroes.
* Others had been trying to make the journey as well. A British balloonist named James Sadler had been hoping to make the trip, but his balloon was defective. Pilatre de Rozier had been planning to make the trip in the other direction, but he was defeated by the prevailing winds. Although he and Blanchard were unfriendly rivals, Rozier graciously gave his congratulations on the adventure.
Rozier still wanted to make the cross-Channel crossing in the other direction, though events kept conspiring to keep him on the ground. He planned to make the journey in a new type of balloon, a hybrid of the hydrogen and hot-air types. The problem with a hydrogen balloon was that descending meant venting gas, and ascending meant dropping ballast; sooner or later, gas and ballast would run short, limiting the endurance of the balloon. A hot-air balloon could rise or fall by simply stoking or starving the fire appropriately, but it didn't have the lifting power of a hydrogen balloon. Rozier had worked with an artisan named Pierre Romain to build the hybrid, which consisted of a hydrogen balloon with a cylindrical hot-air balloon beneath it to control the rise or fall of the entire assembly. The idea was not without merit and it would be revisited to good effect much later -- but given how easily hydrogen ignited, it was very dangerous at a time when the technology was so immature.
Rozier and Romain attempted to make a Channel crossing on 15 June 1785. They got up to an altitude of almost 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) when the hydrogen balloon caught fire, apparently due to an electrical static discharge. Both men were killed in the crash. Rozier had only been flying for about 19 months. They were the first people to be killed in a balloon; they wouldn't be the last.
Jean Pierre Blanchard was not particularly discouraged by the death of Rozier and continued his death-defying stunts all over Europe, even in America, though he found it difficult to make a living at it. He acquired a rival, an Italian named Vincent Lunardi, who was just as much an egotistical daredevil but much more charismatic, and the two men kept trying to top each other's stunts. Other promoters got into the act; after Blanchard's death (in bed) in 1809, his wife Madeleine carried on the tradition with much more financial success than her late husband. Oddly, she was notably timid in most of the other things she did in her life. She would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman to be killed in a balloon, dying after a crash onto a Paris roof in 1819.
* John Jeffries had been the first to take a balloon flight for a practical reason, to perform scientific research. It wasn't too long before the balloon was applied to another practical matter: warfare. The Montgolfiers had promoted the balloon as a way to send troops over enemy defenses, and Benjamin Franklin thought the idea had merit, envisioning large numbers of troops dropped onto enemy soil from the sky.
That idea wasn't one of Ben Franklin's best, but a Frenchman named Andre Giroud de Villette realized that a balloon might make a superb observation post, giving a military commander an "angel's eye view" of the battlefield. In 1793, the new French revolutionary government took up the idea and organized a military balloon effort, under the leadership of a well-known chemist, Jean Marie-Joseph Coutelle. Coutelle went to the town of Maubeuge, then being threatened by the Austrians, to perform tests. Unfortunately, the field commander didn't think much of the balloons and sent Coutelle back to Paris. Coutelle persisted in his efforts, and in April 1794 he took command of the first military balloon unit, the "Compagnie d'Aerostieres", with the men of the company dressed in spiffy blue uniforms featuring black collars and red trim.
Captain Coutelle took his company and their balloon, L'ENTREPRENANT (THE ENTERPRISE), to Maubeuge, and quickly proved the usefulness of the balloon as a military observation post. Two men would ride in the balloon, with one performing observations and the other relaying messages with signal flags, or sending written reports down the tether rope on a ring. The balloon was taken to other battlefields, to prove just as valuable.
The balloon had been proven militarily useful, but warfare is very hard on equipment. It's not just because of the damage inflicted in combat; it's also because military gear has to be dragged across the countryside, and work under harsh weather conditions. Balloons weren't really sturdy enough for such rough duty, and field commanders gradually began to regard them as more bother than they were worth. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had hijacked the revolution for his own glory, disbanded the French military balloon organization. Armies paid little attention to balloons for decades.BACK_TO_TOP
* The French military balloon effort did have one major influence on the development of the technology. Early balloons had been put together in any way the builders felt like it, but a military organization needed to do things in a more structured fashion. A balloon factory and training academy was accordingly established at the Chateau de Meudon in 1794, under the direction of Nicholas-Jacques Conte. Conte was something of a polymath, not merely a scientist and engineer -- he invented the modern pencil, of all things -- but also an artist. He took an industrial approach to the design and fabrication of balloons, and in keeping with the industrial spirit of his work, he made sure it was all documented, even painting highly professional watercolors of various phases of the balloon fabrication process.
Although the Meudon facility was shut down in 1799 after building only five balloons, Conte had done much to set the construction of balloons on a firm foundation. Others worked on that foundation to advance the state of the technology. A French balloonist named Andre Jacques Garnerin invented the parachute in 1797 -- though it was mainly used for stunts at first, instead of as an "aerial life preserver".
Another innovation, though not one that would hang on over the long run, was to fill balloons with "coal gas", a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide produced by "roasting" coal in a sealed chamber. It was piped over city gas mains then being used to provide public lighting. It didn't quite have the lifting power of straight hydrogen, was just as flammable, and the carbon monoxide was toxic -- but it was cheap, readily available, and didn't leak through the balloon envelope so quickly.
The use of coal gas was pioneered by Charles Green of Britain, who went on his first balloon trip in 1821 at age 36, and over 31 years would make about 500 more flights. Green was very methodical and did much to help reduce the dangerous art of ballooning to a relatively safe science, which is no doubt why he lived through his hundreds of balloon flights. Unfailingly polite on the ground, once in the air he became imperious with his passengers, telling them what to do and expecting it to be done without question.
Green was also a very shrewd promoter and was always looking for something new and interesting to do in a balloon. In 1835, with backing from the owners of London's Vauxhall Gardens, he created a balloon that incorporated all he had learned in the 200 flights that he had taken to that time. The balloon, named the ROYAL VAUXHALL of course, was a lovely production of silk about 25 meters (80 feet) tall, with many small refinements, most significantly a "guide rope" or "drag rope" about 300 meters (a thousand feet) long on a windlass.
The idea of a guide rope had been around for a while, but Green was the first to make serious use of it. The idea was that the rope could be unwound from the balloon over open terrain to provide some altitude control without venting gas or dropping ballast. If the balloon rose, it would lift up more of the deployed rope, halting the rise; similarly, if the balloon dropped, more of the rope would fall on the ground, halting the fall. Green fitted the guide rope with copper floats to allow it to be used effectively at sea.
Initial flight of the ROYAL VAUXHALL was in 1836, and it proved all expected of it. Two balloon enthusiasts, a member of the British Parliament named Robert Hollond and an Irish theatrical producer named Thomas Monck Mason, persuaded Green to take the new balloon on a long distance trip across the Channel into Europe, with Hollond funding the venture. On the early afternoon of 7 November 1836, Green, Hollond, and Mason took off from London, passing over the Channel, across northern France, and into Belgium before darkness fell. The night was solid, inky black, making the voyage a bit nerve-wracking, but when the sun came up the next morning they were over the snow-covered fields of the Duchy of Nassau, in what is now Germany. Green landed the balloon in early morning after a flight of 18 hours that covered 612 kilometers (380 miles). The balloonists were given a heroes' welcome, and in appreciation of the enthusiastic reception, Green renamed the balloon THE GREAT BALLOON OF NASSAU.
Balloonists had been toying with the idea of a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing for some time; it was known by then that there was a cyclical wind that could take a balloonist across the ocean east to west and -- farther south -- back west to east again. Green felt he had the technology and skill to pull off the stunt, but though he promoted such a voyage in 1839 and in 1846, nobody wanted to fund the venture. A trans-Atlantic balloon voyage wouldn't happen for well over another century.
* The first American professional balloonist was Charles Ferson Durant, another adventurous polymath. He made his first balloon flight in 1830 at age 25 and performed a total of a dozen flights over the next four years, to then move on to other interests. He was the first person known to have performed a "leaflet drop", scattering promotional poems in praise of ballooning.
Durant's major significance was to inspire a second generation of American balloonists, most notably a Pennsylvanian cabinetmaker named John Wise. Wise took his first balloon flight in 1835 at age 27 and became enthusiastic. Wise was methodical, practical, and good with his hands. He invented another major technical innovation, the "rip panel". When a balloon landed, it could be difficult and even dangerous to control, having a tendency to pop back up into the sky when a passenger jumped out, and easily blown around by winds. The rip panel was a section of the envelope that could be torn open by pulling on a cord, venting the gas from the balloon so it stayed firmly on the ground.
Wise performed public demonstrations that were popular and profitable, but he tired of the routine and got the bug for a trans-Atlantic crossing. Unlike Green, Wise was able to obtain financial backing for the journey, provided by a Vermont businessman named O.A. Gager. Wise had a young artisan named John LaMountain build the balloon, which was appropriately named the ATLANTIC. It was big, about 36.6 meters (120 feet) tall and 18.3 meters (60 feet) in diameter, with a volume of 1,415 cubic meters (50,000 cubic feet). It carried a lifeboat below its wicker car.
Wise sensibly decided to make a journey from Saint Louis, Missouri, to the US East Coast before trying the trans-Atlantic crossing. The ATLANTIC left Saint Louis at sundown on 1 July 1859, with Wise in the car, along with Gager, LaMountain, and a Saint Louis reporter named William Hyde sitting in the boat. However, by midday of 2 July, the balloonists found themselves in serious trouble. The wind had come up into a storm and swept them over Lake Ontario at high speed. They managed to stay aloft by throwing out everything they could, finally being blown ashore near Henderson, New York. They threw out the grappling hook but it simply tore through the trees as the balloon was tossed around and torn up. They finally came to rest high in a tree, more or less unharmed, and slid down to the ground on ropes.
Locals were unbelieving when the crew said they had come from Saint Louis, but in fact the balloonists had set a distance record that would stand for the rest of the century: they had traveled 1,302 kilometers (809 miles) in 19 hours 50 minutes. However, the ATLANTIC was a wreck, and Gager didn't want to invest any more money in the scheme; after the brutally rough ride, it is possible that he didn't want to help Wise kill himself. LaMountain did recover what he could of the balloon and rebuilt it, but on a test flight from New York state in the company of a newspaper editor named John Haddock, the balloon ended up grounded in the wilds of Canada, leaving the two men stranded for four days. The prospects of crossing the Atlantic in a balloon seemed poor as long as balloonists couldn't even make it out to sea.BACK_TO_TOP
* The limitations of the balloon that had led the French military to give up on the technology kept other nations from using it in combat for decades. In 1849, the Austrians had Venice under siege, and tried to bombard the city with 200 autonomous hot-air balloons carrying black powder charges. Shifting winds blew the balloons back across their own lines, and not surprisingly the Austrians concluded it wasn't a good idea.
The balloon's next shot at combat was in the American Civil War. At the outbreak of the conflict in 1861, Northern balloonists had offered their services to the Federal government. John Wise and John LaMountain were among the volunteers; another was a young balloonist from New Hampshire named Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. Lowe had found himself involved in the war at the outset, if not by intent. On 19 April 1861, a week after the start of the war when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter, Lowe conducted a test flight for an Atlantic crossing in his balloon ENTERPRISE. He had taken off from Cincinnati, Ohio, aiming for the East Coast, but his aim was southernly and he ended up landing in South Carolina. He was arrested as a Yankee spy, Southern paranoia then running at a fever pitch, but released a short time later.
Everything was in chaos in Washington DC at the start of the conflict, and the balloonists who showed up there to promote military ballooning found themselves tossed about by the confusion. Lowe was able to penetrate the tangle because he had contacts. He got an audience with President Abraham Lincoln, who was receptive to imaginative new ideas -- taking a personal interest in them at times, it seems as a diversion from the pressures of his job.
Lowe made a number of test flights in June 1861, relaying messages to the president over telegraph. Wise and LaMountain continued their competition and flew their own demonstration flights, but Lowe was more organized, and also enjoyed the president's confidence. When General Winfield Scott, the elderly commander of the Union armies, refused to see Lowe, the balloonist went to Lincoln and the two of them went back to Scott's headquarters together. Lowe was formally appointed the chief balloonist for Union forces a week later. Wise quickly gave up his efforts; LaMountain would persist until early 1862, finally resigning when he could no longer stand the indignity of reporting to Lowe. Lowe was relieved because they had done nothing but quarrel anyway.
* Winfield Scott was pushed out of his position late in 1861, to be replaced by General George McClellan, who was honestly enthusiastic about the military potential of balloons and occasionally went for rides to inspect battlefield terrain. Lowe's balloon corps played a highly visible role in the Union attack on Richmond up the James River peninsula during the spring of 1862, though the balloons could not prevent the ultimate frustration of the campaign due to McClellan's military timidity.
Lowe's balloon corps eventually acquired a total of eight balloons, which were distributed to other fronts in the East, though not all commanders had McClellan's enthusiasm for the contraptions. Other riders included young General George Armstrong Custer, who was so intimidated at first that he insisted on sitting on the floor of the basket.
McClellan did not remain in command long. He was an outstanding organizer and manager, but he lacked the aggressiveness to be a good combat general, while he was both inept and insubordinate in his dealings with his political superiors. He was sacked in the fall of 1862, and the fortunes of the Union balloon corps declined rapidly. Lowe left the service in May 1863 and the organization was disbanded a month later.
Exactly how much the Union balloon corps accomplished, or how much it could have accomplished if Union officers had made more use of it, remains arguable. Confederates did claim that the balloons were a nuisance, forcing rebels soldiers to stay out of sight and constraining their movements. The Confederates occasionally took pot-shots at the balloons with cannon, but never scored any hits. After the war, an ex-Confederate claimed he and a handful of others had once been sent on a mission as saboteurs to destroy a Union observation balloon, but had been thwarted by a big and alert Federal sergeant, who saw him pull out a match and drove him off.
The Confederates tried to fly their own balloons, initially fabricating a completely unworkable hot-air balloon using cotton cloth, and then building two "Silk Dress" balloons filled with coal gas from municipal mains. One was made of from bolts of silk dress cloth, not finished dresses, but the other may have been a patchwork of dress silks. Confederate balloon efforts never amounted to much, and did not last beyond the end of the Union balloon corps.
The Union balloon corps did have one clearly significant effect on the future of lighter-than-air flight, however. A Prussian military adviser sent as an observer to the Union Army, Captain Ferdinand von Zeppelin, was given his first flight in a US Army balloon in 1863, starting a chain of ideas that would result in the great "Zeppelin" powered airships of the First World War.
* The next significant use of balloons in warfare was in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. The French got very much the worst of it on the battlefield, and Paris ended up under siege by the Prussians. A provisional government was set up in Tours; communications with Paris were an obvious problem.
In September 1870, a balloonist named Jules Duruof left the city in a leaky old balloon, carrying a load of dispatches and mail. The Prussians shot at him with heavy guns. Demonstrating a bit of French dash, he responded by throwing out his "visiting cards" to introduce himself to the enemy. He landed beyond Prussian lines and carried his cargo to Tours on a train. Three more balloons, some of them in frightfully bad condition, left the city over the next week or two, successfully delivering more mail and dispatches, as well as a number of carrier pigeons to carry messages back to Paris. That exhausted all the balloons that had been available in the city, but the Parisians had set up two balloon factories in now-idled railroad stations. The work was performed by seamstresses, workmen, and thoroughly landlocked French Navy sailors, all under the direction of a balloonist named Eugene Godard.
The first of the Paris-built balloons lifted into the air on 7 October 1870, and the flights continued on a regular basis. The Prussians kept trying to shoot down the balloons, and since they might well get lucky in time, in late November the decision was made to perform the flights at night. The night flights of course led to navigation errors: one balloon ended up in central Norway. The last flight out of the besieged city was on 28 January 1871, the day the French signed an armistice with the Prussians, ending the war in humiliation for France.
* 66 balloon flights had taken place during the siege, and it had been one of the bright parts in an otherwise dismal story. The French were encouraged enough to reestablish a balloon corps in 1877, and most of the other major military powers did as well. The British introduced a particularly significant innovation in 1884, supplying hydrogen in metal cylinders for inflating balloons. The scheme was devised by Captain J.L.B. Templar, an amateur balloonist who had helped create the British balloon corps in 1880. It was far more convenient than carting around stocks of sulfuric acid and iron filings -- though it took some work to develop tanks and valves that could withstand high pressures without leaking.
The British used balloons in colonial clashes and during the Boer War in South Africa, from 1899 to 1902. The Americans used a balloon during the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, but the Spaniards shot it full of holes before it could accomplish anything.BACK_TO_TOP
* The balloon remained a strong public attraction through the rest of the century, with balloonists discovering new angles and coming up with bigger and better, or at least bigger, balloons.
A French photographer named Felix Tournachon, who advertised himself to the public as "Nadar", had become interested in ballooning and became the first person to take aerial photographs. He was also interested in heavier-than-air flight, and to fund his investigations he built the biggest balloon made to that time, appropriately named LE GEANT (THE GIANT). It was 60 meters (196 feet) tall and carried a car that had six compartments, including a head.
LE GEANT made its first flight, from Paris, on 4 October 1863, carrying Tournachon, his two assistants, and twelve passengers into the air. The flight didn't go well: the balloon didn't make it far outside of Paris before it went down, dragging the oversized car across the countryside. The second flight, with only six passengers this time, was on 18 October. It went better at first, with the big balloon making it to Germany overnight, but when Tournachon tried to bring the balloon down, it got caught in a wind that nearly threw it in front of a train. It finally ended up in the trees and tore open. The vehicle's crew and passengers were left strewn over the terrain, leaving some with broken bones, but there were no fatalities.
Despite the unfortunate end of LE GEANT, the French remained infatuated with big balloons. Later in the 1860s, a French engineer named Henri Giffard started to build oversized balloons, basically offering them as thrill rides, carrying large groups of people into the sky with the balloon tethered or "captive" on a cable. Like Tournachon, Giffard wanted to fund research into heavier-than air machines. His ultimate creation was LE GRAND BALLON CAPTIF, taller than the Arc de Triomphe, with Giffard flying his creation during the 1878 Paris exposition.
* John Wise didn't give up on his attempts to cross the Atlantic after the Civil War, and in 1873 he obtained backing from a magazine for another attempt, in collaboration with an acrobat named Washington Donaldson. Donaldson had once walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls and liked to perform death-defying stunts, hanging from a balloon. Wise planned to use a balloon 49 meters (160 feet) tall with a two-compartment enclosed car, but he ended up dropping out of the enterprise. Donaldson persisted, acquiring a smaller balloon with an open boat for the car. His Atlantic attempt, performed in the company of two reporters, ended up being forced down by a rainstorm, to land on a Connecticut farm. Donaldson wanted to try again, continuing his aerial daredevil act for showman P.T. Barnum, and becoming increasingly more reckless.
Donaldson's luck finally ran out in 1875 when he tried to fly across Lake Michigan in a balloon, accompanied by a reporter named Newton Grimwood. The balloon never made it to the far shore; Grimwood's body washed up on shore weeks later, but Donaldson was never seen again. John Wise tried a Lake Michigan flight on 29 September 1879 and disappeared without a trace. Balloonists gave up on the idea of a trans-Atlantic flight for the time being.BACK_TO_TOP
* As mentioned earlier, Dr. John Jeffries had been the first scientist to attempt to perform serious atmospheric research from a balloon. There were a number of other scientific flights early on. Some were little more than stunts -- in 1798, a French balloonist actually took a horse, presumably blindfolded, on a balloon ride -- but there were some serious efforts as well, most prominently an 1804 ascent by the French physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac.
Science from balloons remained in the doldrums for decades after than, but it began to revive in mid-century. In 1850, two French researchers, Jean-Augustin Barral and Jacques Bixio, began a series of high-altitude research flights. They were not very experienced balloonists and their first attempt ended in a crash, but they tried again a month later and performed a flight to 7,100 meters (23,000 feet), where they obtained ice crystals from cirrus clouds.
Of course, whatever the French did, the British had to do better. A British meteorologist named James Glaisher joined forces with a balloonist named Henry Coxwell to perform a set of record high-altitude balloon flights. Coxwell was tired of simply performing balloon exhibitions, and had a large balloon built specially for the research flights. The two began ascents in July of 1862, reaching a record altitude of 7,320 meters (24,000 feet) in August.
They actually went much higher on 5 September, though not by plan, on a flight that very nearly killed them. They had exceeded their previous altitude record when the two started becoming dangerously short of breath. However, the valve cord had become tangled and the balloon kept right on going up while Coxwell desperately tried to unsnarl the cord in the thin, bitterly cold air. He managed to get the cord free, but his hands were too numb to grasp it, so he yanked the valve open with his teeth. The balloon rapidly descended to lower altitude where Glaisher, who had been on the threshold of complete unconsciousness, recovered quickly and continued his observations. It was one of the highest ascents anyone ever made in an open balloon without oxygen supplies and lived to tell about it. The two went up again, continuing their program of scientific observations over 27 flights into 1866.
The French of course had to respond in turn, but reaching higher altitudes clearly meant developing some kind of air supply. In the 1870s, two French researchers, Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Theodore Sivel, developed a simple breathing apparatus, consisting of a bladder filled with air and oxygen, delivered to the user through a hand-held hose. They tested it in a partial vacuum chamber, but obviously a high-altitude balloon flight would be a more severe test, and they might well set an altitude record while they were at it.
They got in touch with Gaston Tissandier, an experienced balloonist, one of the veterans of the balloon flights out of besieged Paris, and in April 1875 they began a high-altitude flight in the balloon LE ZENITH. The exercise ended in tragedy. One of the problems of oxygen starvation is that, under certain circumstances, it can make victims feel light-headed and euphoric, clouding their judgement so that they do not take corrective action until it is too late. As LE ZENITH rose higher into the sky, the three voyagers grew giddy and light-headed; all three passed out. That might not have been fatal, since when they woke up again about a half-hour later the balloon was falling rapidly -- but Croce-Spinelli, his judgement still impaired, threw out too much ballast, and the balloon shot up to what was later estimated to be about 8,540 meters (28,000 feet). Tissandier recovered again about an hour later, with the balloon once more falling rapidly. He managed to land safely, but both Croce-Spinelli and Sivel were dead. Tissandier only survived because he was better acclimated to high altitudes.
* The death of the two researchers unsurprisingly dampened enthusiasm for high-altitude balloon flights for the next few decades. In 1894, a German meteorologist named Arthur Berson broke the silence by performing a flight with an oxygen supply to an altitude of 9,150 meters (30,000 feet) in his balloon PHOENIX, but by that time new technology was making crewed scientific balloon flights generally unnecessary.
In the early 1890s, French researchers -- most significantly the team of scientist Gustave Hermite and balloonist Georges Bensacon, as well as scientist Jules Richard -- had developed an automated system that could be lofted in a balloon to perform measurements at high altitude, then float back to ground. Originally, open balloons were used, but they tended to drift long distances during their descent, complicating recovery. A German meteorologist named Assman improved on the concept by using closed rubber balloons that would burst at high altitude, with the payload parachuting back down to earth. Assman's design was the direct ancestor of the modern weather balloon.
By the beginning of the 20th century, automated sonde balloons had eliminated most of the need for atmospheric researchers and meteorologists to take balloon flights themselves. In 1900, a French physicist, Teisserenc de Bort, performed a series of automated "sonde" balloon flights and discovered a layer in the atmosphere from about 11 to 20 kilometers (7 to 12 miles) above the surface of the Earth where temperatures remained constant from top to bottom, not decreasing with altitude as occurred in lower regions. He called this mysterious region the "stratosphere". For the moment, such heights remained beyond the reach of crewed balloons.
* However, there were other frontiers for balloonists to explore. A Swedish balloonist named Salomon August Andree came up with a truly daring scheme for a balloon research flight, in the form of a plan to reach the North Pole by balloon. It was very risky, since no balloon had ever taken such a long flight through such a harsh environment, but if anyone had the skill and guts to pull it off, it was Andree. He had learned ballooning from John Wise during a stay in the United States, and he was an excellent engineer.
Andree found backers for the scheme, including Alfred Nobel and King Oscar of Sweden, and had a balloon named ORNEN (EAGLE) built specifically for the journey. The balloon had a three-layer envelope, with special provisions for dealing with ice and snow; an elaborate system of guide ropes; and a compact enclosed wicker gondola, with sleeping accommodations, plus a stock of tools, supplies, and food. It was the 1890s equivalent of a moonshot.
Andree hoped to launch from Spitsbergen in northern Norway during the summer of 1896, about 1,125 kilometers (700 miles) from the pole. Andree believed he could make the journey in three days, but the weather didn't cooperate, and he was forced to wait until the following summer. On 11 July 1897, Andree and his two crewmates, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frankel, departed from Spitsbergen. Three carrier pigeons came back with messages, but then all went silent. Over the next few years, two messages in bottles were found from the crew of the ORNEN, but they had been dispatched early in the journey and reported no troubles. Reports that the bodies of the balloon's crew had been found didn't pan out. The three explorers had vanished without a trace; nobody ever expected to find out what had happened to them.
However, in 1930 two Norwegian walrus hunters found three human skeletons on White Island, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Spitsbergen. There was no doubt whose bones they were, since the two hunters also found the ORNEN's logs and even undeveloped photographic film. The balloon had iced up as it went north, and finally grounded on 14 July. The explorers made a difficult trek south over the rugged ice, and finally set up winter camp on White Island as winter set in. They might have survived, since they were well-equipped and resourceful, but the logs ended abruptly only a few weeks after they set up camp. The most plausible guess was that they were all killed by food poisoning that took them down so fast they didn't have time or energy to record the matter in their logs. It was a tragic end to one of the great adventures in ballooning, and could also be seen as the end of the pioneering era of balloons and ballooning.BACK_TO_TOP