Balloon History

The Idea

Just outside the city of Paris, France in the mid-1700's, was the paper company of two brothers - the Montgolfier brothers. This company was very successful in the creation of the areas finest of papers.

They also had quite a bit of scrap paper they were unsure what do to with. All this time, they often enjoyed the notion of flight, watching the birds soaring high above. As they burned the final scraps of the day, they sat watching the black smoke rise high into the air, and bringing small scraps of paper with it. This gave them the initial idea of flight - what if they were able to harness that smoke and use it to lift a larger piece of paper? This is exactly what they did!

To learn more, watch the PBS Documentary linked to the right.

The Balloon

Their first of many attempts were tried with small versions, using paper buttoned together in such a shape to capture the black smoke. These quickly burned up as they were too heavy to fly on their own. So, the brothers needed a bigger fire!

After many attempts, they were finally able to construct a large balloon that could be held in place with large crane-like structures on either side over a large fire that produced thick, black smoke.

By now, you are probably asking - "why thick, black smoke?" Back in the 1700's, it was believed that it was the SMOKE that cause their scrap paper to "ascend into the heavens." Today, we know that it is the heat that rises and provides the lifting properties. To the Montgolfier brothers, the belief was that they needed a large fire that could produce the blackest of smoke. They used everything they had available - wet, green, leafy vegetation, and anything else that would create a large amount of smoke. Today, they would use old car tires...

Early Hot Air Balloon Designs
Depiction of Final Hot Air Balloon Design in 1783

The First Balloon Flight

The Montgolfier brothers took their safety serious and were unsure of what would happen to a human being during flight. Therefore, like our 'Space Race' in the '60's, they loaded animals on the first flights - they used a duck, a rooster, and a sheep. This would provide sufficient evidence that flying would, ultimately, be safe.

After the balloon took off, the brothers followed it on land. The balloon would drift along, belching this black awful smoke as it flew. Catching up to the landed balloon, they found it torn to shreds, surrounded by farmers yielding pitch forks and other weapons of choice. Remember, this is the countryside of France...the only thing they ever saw flying were birds, but, there were many stories of fire-breathing dragons destroying fields. There were also rumors of new flying war machines from invading armies coming to take their land. The farmers only choice was to defend their property.

First Manned Flight in a Balloon

The Montgolfier has seen the success with their new adventure crafts and began building one that was to lift a human. In 1783, they accomplished that mission. The brothers enlisted one of their scientists, Jean-Franíçois Pilí¢tre De Rozier, to be the first man to fly. There are other versions of this story that depict Dr. Rozier as a low-level staffer of the paper plant volunteering to be the human guinea pig. Either way, Mr. Rozier was the first human to ascend in a hot air balloon - a tethered ride of 250 feet.

On subsequent flights, Mr. Rozier traveled with Champagne, an expensive and exclusive wine made from specific grapes in a specific region of France. This is significant because Mr. Rozier was also greeted by farmers with pitchforks with a determination to kill this thing dropping out of the heavens. Mr. Rozier used the champagne as proof he was not only human, but, also a Frenchman.