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Balloons

The Beginnings of Aerial Transportation

Inventing Balloons

The first known success at any type of flight was in France. Two brothers from Annonay, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, launched the first hot-air balloon in June of 1783. Their first balloon was made of paper and they held it above a fire filling it with smoke which gave it lift.

MontgolfierIn September of the same year, the king of France, Louis XVI and his family witnessed the first balloon flight to carry living passengers. The world's first air passengers were a duck, a rooster, and a sheep. In October, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier unofficially became the first human being to ascend in a balloon. King Louis thought that the experiment might be dangerous and suggested that the Montgolfiers use a condemned criminal for the passenger. However, Pilâtre de Rozier, the king's historian, argued that it would be a great honor to be the first person aloft and Louis conceded and allowed him to make the flight. The flight in a tethered balloon lasted about 4 1/2 minutes and reached an altitude of 84 feet. Later, in November of 1783, de Rozier and a passenger made the first official manned flight in a balloon. Their free balloon flight lasted about 25 minutes and reached an altitude of about 500 feet flying over a large portion of Paris. The first balloons were usually free balloons meaning that they floated freely on the wind and it determined their course. Captive balloons are tethered to the ground with cables so that they do not float away on the wind. On January 17, 1784, the Montgolfiers built a very large balloon which successfully carried seven passengers on a trip over the city of Lyon at an altitude of three thousand feet. Balloons were known as Montgolfiers in the early days of aviation.

The early hot-air balloons had several problems, one being that they only stayed aloft as long as the air inside them remained warm. Re-heating the air while aloft was dangerous because sparks from the fires carried aboard to reheat the air frequently ignited the balloon fabric. It was not until after World War II that the propane burner for hot-air balloons was invented. Æ

Hydrogen Balloons

In 1766, the British chemist Henry Cavendish discovered, or successfully isolated, hydrogen. This newly discovered gas did not immediately have many practical applications, however, and it was not until 1781 that Italian businessman Tiberius Cavello was playing with hydrogen-filled soap bubbles and discovered that they always floated upwards. This is because hydrogen is the lightest element and it is lighter than air. In fact, hydrogen can escape the gravity of earth and float off into outer space.

J. A. C. Charles, the French physicist famous for Charles' Law, began experimenting with hydrogen balloons about the same time that the Montgolfiers were developing their hot-air balloons. Charles launched his first unoccupied balloon on August 27, 1783. It had taken four days to make enough hydrogen to fill it and it climbed to 3000 feet and floated within sight for more than an hour in the calm atmosphere that day.

Charles first balloon eventually drifted off as the wind picked up and landed about fifteen miles, or 24 km, from Paris where it was furiously attacked and shredded by terrified peasants that thought it was a demonic manifestation. In order to avoid similar panics in the future, King Louis XVI issued a decree explaining what balloons were, what they looked like and asking that they not be attacked again.

Charles and some associates made the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon on December 1, 1783. They traveled more than twenty-five miles, or 40.3 km, in less than two hours. This balloon was similar to modern balloons in many ways. They carried a barometer and thermometer to conduct some atmospheric experiments. When they landed Charles decided that he wanted to fly alone for awhile and his associates then stepped out of the basket. The balloon then jumped rapidly to 9000 feet, and Charles discovered that the air was very cold and thin at that altitude. About a year later, an American doctor, John Jeffries, made the first scientific collection of atmospheric data from a balloon.

The historian serving the King of France, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, continued to enjoy ballooning and he began to experiment with a combination of hydrogen and hot-air to lift his balloons. This eventually proved to be a bad idea and Pilâtre de Rozier's ballooning career and life ended when he discovered that hydrogen gas is explosive. Nevertheless, the flamboyant historian secured a place in history that can never be supplanted as not only the first person to fly, but also, the first person to die in a balloon. Æ

Skydiving

A US Marine parachuting at Parris Island, S.C. May, 1942. Photo: Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress fsac1a35170Shortly after mankind gained the ability to rise into the skies, he soon decided to jump back to the earth, possibly inspired by attempts to reheat the air. André Jacque Garmerin of France was the first person to parachute from a balloon. He successfully completed his jump over Paris on October 27, 1797. Æ

American Ballooning

Balloons preparing to take off at the National Balloon Race, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 05/31/1922 - Photo: Department of the Navy. Bureau of Aeronautics - National Archives College Park, MD NWDNS-72-AS-2177The French brought their ballooning skills to America in January of 1793 when François Blanchard ascended in a balloon in Philadelphia. President George Washington and a large crowd of onlookers witnessed the event. Benjamin Franklin had witnessed a test flight of Charles' balloon in 1793. Naturally balloons were first commercialized in the United States and Charles Ferson Durant experimented with dropping leaflets from balloons in 1820. Durant was perhaps the world's first aerial litterbug and may also be the father of the propaganda bomb.

A great showman, Durant would sometimes ascend very high in his balloons and allow them to burst and then use the ruptured balloon as a parachute to return safely to the earth. He also developed a portion of his performance where it would rain cats and dogs. In this part of the show, he put parachutes on the animals and threw them overboard - a practice that would not be acceptable today.

John Wise was one of the earliest commercial aeronauts performing at many county fairs and other entertainment venues throughout the United States. He made many ascents while engaged in this business and refined many aspects of ballooning as a result of his experience. One of his developments, the ripping panel, is still used. Wise devised the ripping panel to release the lifting gas rapidly so that the wind would not carry a landing balloon away. Æ

American Civil War Balloons

Professor Thaddeus Lowe launching the Intrepid - Photo, Mathew Brady Collection / NARAThe first widespread use of aerial vehicles for military purposes occurred early in the Civil War. Hot air and hydrogen-filled balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance. The use of balloons began in the North due to the persuasion of two men, Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe and John LaMountain. Shortly after the Civil War began, Lowe and LaMountain separately approached the US Government communicating how valuable balloons could be in the role of reconnaissance.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe - Photo, NARAThe idea for balloon reconnaissance occurred to Lowe after a test flight for his anticipated attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon flew over Confederate territory and he was able to observe the tumult below. Upon his return to Yankee territory he contacted the sponsor for his Atlantic crossing, Murat Halstead, and persuaded him to change his support to a military balloon project. Halstead was convinced and contacted an acquaintance, Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the US Treasury. Chase then arranged a demonstration before President Abraham Lincoln of the potential that balloons had for military purposes.

Professor Lowe's First Aerial Telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, 1861 - Lincoln Papers Archives / LOCProfessor Lowe arrived at the capital and outlined his vision for the balloon to the president and proposed an added feature, balloon telegraphy, on 11 June, 1861. President Lincoln was interested and a demonstration was arranged for 17 June at the Columbia Armory in Washington D.C. Lowe arrived for the demonstration with his balloon the Enterprise and several representatives of the Magnetic Telegraph Company. The tethered balloon ascended to a height of 500 feet (150 metres) and the world's first telegraphic transmission from the air was relayed through wires running along the tether lines to both the War Department and the White House. The demonstration was a success and both Lowe and the Enterprise were now guests at the White House.

Professor Lowe observing a battle in the Intrepid, 1862 - Photo, Mathew Brady Collection / NARAAs a result of his successful demonstration, Lowe secured an appointment as the commander of Lincoln's newly created Balloon Corps serving under the Bureau of Topographical Engineers. Lowe was authorized to requisition equipment and personnel through the Bureau. The Balloon Corps was a civilian organization, however, and it was a low priority within the Topographical Engineers. The corps largest source of manpower was from civilian volunteers that were already balloonists. The balloonists were pioneers and lone rangers, so to speak, so the Balloon Corps soon suffered from problems caused by prima donnas with large egos and one-upmanship. These problems were exacerbated by the lack of rigid military chains of command and the activities of John LaMountain.

LaMountain, having grown tired of waiting for word from the War Department, received an invitation to demonstrate his balloon's potential from General Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Union's forces at Monroe, Virginia. LaMountain demonstrated his balloon, the Atlantic, for General Butler and reported rebel locations in battle. This gave LaMountain the opportunity to boast that he had been the first person to use a balloon in battle, and he frequently did so in the press.

Professor Lowe's Balloon Gas Generation Equipment In the Capital Mall, 1861 - Photo, Department of Agriculture / NARALaMountain did not enjoy the benefits of the arrangement that Lowe had secured and continued to work with Butler's army. LaMountain preferred free-flight in his balloon and generally operated at greater heights. He secured a newer balloon named the Saratoga, but it was soon lost in high winds. This left him with only the Atlantic, which was nearly worn out. He hoped to secure a new balloon from Lowe, but to no avail. At this point, LaMountain was now acting as an independent entity.

View of Balloon Ascension, 1862 - Photo, Mathew Brady Collection / NARALaMountain now assailed Lowe and the Balloon Corps in the press, self-aggrandizing and belittling everything that the Balloon Corps did at every turn. This soon became a problem for the Army that had to be solved and it caused morale problems within the Balloon Corps. After LaMountain flamed Lowe to the press in a particularly nasty exchange, the Army had had enough. After studying the problem, General George McClellan directed that LaMountain be informed that he could be of no further service to the military.

Professor Lowe Ascending in the Intrepid, 1862 - Photo, Mathew Brady Collection / NARANevertheless, too much damage had already been done to the Balloon Corps. After all of the negative press, most Army personnel did not see how the Balloon Corps could be of any use despite the great amount of useful intelligence that they had produced. Shortly, General McClellan was relieved of command in 1863. The successor appointed to oversee the Balloon Corps, Captain Cyrus Comstock, ordered cutbacks in supplies and personnel and soon cut Lowe's pay. Unable to continue with the financial constraints, Lowe resigned in April of 1863. The Balloon Corps continued a few more months, but was quietly disbanded in August.

The Balloon Corps was discontinued at about the time that it had proven unequivocally its value in battle. It had pioneered the field of military aviation and had even launched a craft from the deck of a ship on the Potomac, the USS G.W. Parke-Custis in November 1861, a precursor to the modern aircraft carrier. Other important contributions included aerial photography and cartography. Confederate forces developed their own Balloon Corps in response to the Union corps, but securing materials hampered their balloon program. Finally, Union forces succeeded in destroying the remaining Confederate balloons ending the program for the Confederacy.

Both Union and Confederate forces tried to use balloons as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. In this experiment, unmanned balloons were loaded with explosives and they were launched in hopes that they would find a target such as an arsenal and explode nearby. Since the balloons had no way of controlling them, they were mostly unsuccessful and the idea was soon abandoned. Æ

Wartime Uses

Balloons were used the first time for military purposes during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792 - 1815). France created a balloon corps called the Aerostiers in 1794 for aerial reconnaissance in tethered balloons. The corps was not used much. A short time later, Napoléon used balloons again during his Egyptian campaign.

Balloons were later used in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. During this war, balloons not only found use for aerial observation, but also, innovators experimented with other uses for them including aerial bombardment.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians laid siege to Paris, which was cut off from the outside world for an extended period of time. The clever Parisians sent mail by balloon and many important political figures escaped the city in them. By the end of the war, more than ten tons of payload and 164 passengers had left Paris by balloon. It was not a coincidence that the Prussians were the first to develop antiaircraft artillery. They also established their own balloon corps before the Franco-Prussian War ended.

 US Marines landing a barrage balloon at Parris Island, S.C. May, 1942. Photo: Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Collection, Library of CongressBalloons have been used for many different military applications. Balloons were used extensively during World War I. Some of the uses for them included observation and the British Navy used them to locate German U-boats. Many unmanned captive balloons were flown over London as a barrier against low-flying aircraft. Balloons used for this purpose are known as barrage balloons and they were used for this purpose beyond World War II.

Barrage balloons protect the USS Salt Lake City off the Mare Island Navy Yard 10 May 1943. Photo: War Department, US NavyDuring World War II, barrage balloons again floated over London dangling lengths of metal cable forcing German bombers to higher altitudes. This reduced the accuracy of the German bombing missions. The United States Navy commonly used them to protect their fleets from aerial threats during missions in hostile waters and at home. Barrage balloons have not been commonly used in some time, but their usefulness may not be entirely past. Æ

Further Balloon Uses

A US Weather Service Technician Releasing A Thermasonde (weather balloon) Los Angeles, California - September, 1973 - Photo: Gene Daniels, US Environmental Protection Agency  - NARA NWDNS-412-DA-9874Photo, NASAToday, balloons are used for pleasure and sport and still have scientific and military applications. Balloons continue to be used for many different purposes and a significant number of the great firsts in aviation history were achieved with them. Many of the altitude records of aviation history, some as late as the 1960s, were set with balloons. Some balloons achieved altitudes so high that they actually left the atmosphere and orbited the earth. During the early days of the space program, some satellites were hybrids between satellites and balloons. Balloons have been used as portable radio towers and extensively for atmospheric research experiments. Balloons for atmospheric research are sometimes called thermasondes or radiosondes, depending on how they are equipped. There are also modified configurations of the balloon’s basic shape, some of which are called tetroons. These are simply balloons shaped similar to a tetrahedron. Most of the unusual configurations are used for very special purposes, such as aerial buoys. Balloons were used extensively to study atmospheric currents up to the 1970s and still serve this role today, but in a much reduced extent. Æ

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