Hot air balloons are the first recorded mode of flight for mankind. This amazing invention opened the door to all the different kinds of flying machines that followed, so it is important to know who started it all.
Hot air balloons were invented by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. There are instances of balloon-like flying contraptions before the Montgolfier brothers, but it was these two Frenchmen who combined those various concepts into a workable model.
The history of the hot air balloon is both interesting and relatively unknown. Both the hot air balloon and those behind its invention have quite the story!
Prefigurations of the Hot Air Balloon
Chinese Paper Lanterns
The earliest forms of flying balloon-like contraptions date back to ancient China. Dating back to at least 200 AD, the Chinese used flying paper lanterns for celebration and also military operations.
These lanterns, popularly called Chinese lanterns today, harnessed the same laws as hot air balloons to achieve flight. Chinese lanterns served a dramatically different purpose than hot air balloons.
Even the largest Chinese lanterns are much smaller than the smallest hot air balloons. Because of this, Chinese lanterns have never been manned. Their construction has always been too small and fragile.
Today, these lanterns are used for all kinds of celebrations, especially at special lantern festivals.
Putting a Man in the Balloon
The ideas behind hot air balloons didn’t make their way west until the 18th century AD. In 1709, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, began research on a manned flying apparatus.
His research was funded by the King of Portugal, John V, and was very successful at first. Gusmão even achieved an unmanned flight in the presence of the King and Queen with a small balloon.
Unfortunately, Gusmão’s research was halted due to persecution from the Inquisition. His dream of creating a manned flying vehicle would not be realized in his lifetime.
Gusmão died in 1724. He left behind blueprints for a manned flying device that were not yet finished. He also wrote a manifesto entitled “Short Manifesto for those who are unaware that it is possible to sail through the element air”.
There is a theory that purports that hot air balloons were used to create the Nazca Lines in Peru. If this were true, these hot air balloons would be the first hot air balloons in existence by over a thousand years. There is no substantive evidence that this theory is true.
It was not until over 50 years after Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s death that man would finally create an operational hot air balloon.
The Montgolfier Brothers
Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier are two brothers born in 18th century France. They were born to Pierre and Anne Montgolfier in 1740 and 1745 respectively.
The Montgolfier family was a part of the upper merchant class. Their main source of income was their massive paper manufacturing company. Because of this, Joseph and Étienne were raised in relative comfort.
Joseph, although older, was the less capable of the two. He lacked good business instincts but compensated with his creativity. Étienne, on the other hand, was very business savvy.
Although Joseph was the 12th child in the family and Étienne was the 15th, they would both have their opportunity to lead the family business. Ultimately it would be Étienne who inherited the paper business.
Étienne used his business sense and experience in architecture to make the paper company even more successful. It was his idea to use the latest Dutch technology to increase output at the paper mills.
Étienne showed his abilities in business and even proved he could borrow from the great minds of the time. Even with all of his achievements, the earliest idea for the hot air balloon came from his dreamer brother, Joseph.
A Passion for Invention
Joseph was actually involved in many new inventions. In 1782, Joseph experimented with an early form of the parachute. He is one of many to assist in the invention of the modern parachute.
There are lots of stories surrounding Joseph’s idea for the hot air balloon. Some stories claim he witnessed clothes drying over a fire catch some lift and that was when he had the idea. There are other stories that say it was watching burning paper fly out of the fire that sparked the idea. Still, other stories claim a smoke stack was involved.
It is more than likely that one or all of these stories are true. For a visionary like Joseph, it is not uncommon to notice these kinds of phenomena.
We do know for certain that the idea of flight was a hot topic amongst 18th-century inventors. Henry Cavendish and other European scientists were attempting to create a flying machine using hydrogen as early as 1766.
It is likely that all of these factors led to Joseph’s earliest ideas for the hot air balloon. Whatever the case, Joseph invited Étienne to join him in experimenting with hot air balloons in December of 1782.
Creation and Competition
Working in Annonay, France, the brothers worked quickly to build a large scale hot air balloon. They wanted to be the first to patent this invention. Joseph saw it as a huge development for the scientific world while Étienne saw it as a potential business opportunity.
The First Successful Hot Air Balloon
Their first model was made of sackcloth and paper. It weighed over 500lbs. and was held together by almost 2,000 buttons! It also employed a fishnet on the outside to help hold everything together.
Their first public display took place in June of 1783 in front of a small crowd. A much larger demonstration took place in August of that same year. Both of these displays were done with an unmanned hot air balloon.
News spread quickly of this invention. Étienne took their hot air balloon to Paris to reach a wider audience. The earliest flights lasted about 10 minutes and could travel over a mile.
Étienne collaborated with Jean-Baptiste Réveillon to make an even larger model. This was another step towards manned flights. Réveillon, a wallpaper manufacturer, added some practicality to the Montgolfier’s design, but mostly just added style.
There were further tests with this larger design that proved very successful. During this time period, Joseph stayed in Annonay as he was too shy to become involved with the larger audiences.
Joseph was largely the mind behind the idea for a hot air balloon but left the marketing of the invention up to Étienne. Étienne, ever the businessman, was always posh in his presentations. He became very popular with the French court.
Because of this, there has been dispute from time to time over who should get credit for the invention of the hot air balloon.
So Who Gets the Credit?
It seems that Joseph had the original idea, but he missed many important developments due to his reclusive nature. Étienne was less influential at the beginning of the project, but he certainly carried its success later on. Some even argue that Réveillon deserves more credit than historians normally give him.
There’s even another French scientist who tried claiming credit for this invention. Jacques Charles fought the Montgolfier brothers for months trying to take credit for the hot air balloon. It has been proven beyond any dispute that Charles completed his invention two months after the Montgolfier’s first flight.
After many decades of debate, it is generally agreed that Joseph and Étienne were the two who contributed the most important work to the invention of the hot air balloon. There never appears to have been any competition between the brothers even if there was competition to outdo other inventors.
Early Success and Disaster
A Sheep, Duck, and a Rooster get into a Balloon
On September 19th, 1783, the first flight that carried living creatures took place. At the royal palace in Versailles, the Montgolfiers and Réveillon put a sheep, a duck, and a rooster on a hot air balloon. This hot air balloon flew for about 8 minutes and traveled over 2 miles.
This trip was a huge step forward in achieving a manned flight. Not only did the hot air balloon perform wonderfully, but all of the animals also survived. The King and Queen of France were also in attendance for this demonstration, bringing even more attention to the invention.
It was of great significance to the scientists of the time that the animals survived. While it is a nice detail to us today, it meant a lot to people at that time.
Sheep were considered to have similar biology to humans at that time. If sheep could survive the higher altitude, then it was assumed that humans could too. The duck and rooster were used as controls for the experiment.
With this success, and the belief that the animals proved humans could survive the flight, it was time to take the next step: it was time for manned flight.
The First Manned Flights
Two manned flights took place on October 15, 1783. The first was manned by Étienne Montgolfier. The second was manned by Pilâtre de Rozier. Both of these flights were done by balloons tethered to the ground.
The first free flight was accomplished on November 21st, 1783. It was manned by Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes. Their flight lasted about 25 minutes and they traveled over 5 miles.
This flight could have lasted much longer, but the pilots were concerned that the balloon was getting too hot and would soon burst into flame. Their good sense most likely saved their lives. Unfortunately, other pilots following soon thereafter would not have the same good sense.
The success of the first free manned flight was widely publicized. Étienne Montgolfier was even made royalty by King Louis XVI, the king of France. It encouraged many inventors to experiment with hot air balloons.
In 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier, one of the pilots of the first free hot air balloon flight, died while trying to cross the English Channel. He was experimenting with a balloon that combined hot air and hydrogen. It exploded.
Many other pilots met the same fate as Pilâtre de Rozier in the following years. Because of this, hot air balloons fell out of favor for over 100 years. In their place, many experimented with gas balloons that utilized gases lighter than air.
The 19th century and half of the 20th century came and went without any advances in hot air balloon technology.
Inventing the Modern Hot Air Balloon
One of the issues that early hot air balloons had were that the Montgolfier brothers believed it was smoke that caused buoyancy in their balloons. Because of this, they always used wet fuel to make their fires.
Joseph Montgolfier did theorize that fire created a gas that had yet to be discovered. He called it Montgolfier gas. What he was actually experiencing wasn’t the air becoming a different gas, but the air becoming warmer.
There were two discoveries that greatly improved the viability of hot air balloons. The first was a greater understanding of states of matter. This helped scientists to understand how oxygen molecules acted when heated. The second was the discovery of light liquid propane burners.
Making Some Changes
In the 1950s, Ed Yost started to experiment with what would become the modern hot air balloon. Yost, an engineer with gas ballooning experience, envisioned making hot air balloons popular again.
There was a lot of work to do before this dream could be accomplished. Yost’s vision led him to be responsible for a long list of inventions. Each furthered his dream of the modern hot air balloon.
The list of Yost’s inventions includes (but isn’t limited to) nonporous synthetic fabrics, maneuvering vents, and deflation systems for landing. He even came up with the idea for the shape of modern-day hot air balloons.
Yost would ultimately accomplish his goal. On October 22nd, he manned the first free flight in a modern hot air balloon. He would later fly a modern hot air balloon across the English Channel. He set several world records in aviation.
Today, hot air balloons are much more popular than their gas balloon counterparts. There are hot air balloons festivals all over the world every year and dozens of hot air balloon clubs and organizations.
The Montgolfier Legacy
There’s a lot that could be said about the Montgolfier brothers. Their legacy today is probably very different than the one they envisioned while they were alive.
After the French Revolution, the Montgolfier brothers lost a lot of money. Napoleon later made Joseph Montgolfier the head of the French Conservatory of Arts and Trades.
Both brothers are credited with other important inventions. Joseph invented the first hydraulic ram, and Étienne invented a way to manufacture vellum. They went on to publish several papers and books together and independently.
Even though the Montgolfier paper company still exists, now named Canson, the Montgolfier’s are known today for their inventions.
The invention they’re best known for today is definitely the hot air balloon. While it never took off in their life how they had hoped due to safety concerns and competition from gas balloons, the hot air balloon is by far the most widely used of any of their inventions today.
There is even a balloon design called a Montgolfier Balloon! Many hot air balloon festivals find a way to honor these two brothers. There are also many books written about them, all of which focus on their work inventing the hot air balloon.
While it may have surprised them then, it only makes sense now that the Montgolfier brothers are known for inventing the hot air balloon.