Using generated heat to capture rising air inside an envelope of material, the hot air balloon concept has fascinated scientists and speculators for centuries. Hot air balloons were one of the first methods of flight created by humans. Although their documented history is generally only begins in the 18th century, some evidence suggest that the balloons have been in the minds of humans for thousands of years.
China generally claims credit for being the first to make use of the technology. Heated air is lighter than cold air, so if there is a sufficient envelope to trap the air, the device it is attached to will rise. In the 3rd century, small unmanned versions of hot air balloons, called Kongming lanterns, were used as signaling devices during the constant military campaigns of the time. These lanterns later became traditional at some Chinese festivals.
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Several balloonists and historians have postulated that the Nazca Indians of Peru could have used hot air balloon technology to aid them in building the famous Nazca line drawings. Using only technology available to the Nazcas of the 6th century, two balloonists built an enormous balloon capable of flight. While no evidence has been uncovered to suggest that the Nazca people did fly in balloons, the test demonstrated that it was certainly possible.
The history of modern ballooning begins in Portugal in 1783, when a priest demonstrated for the Portuguese court his small, working balloon model. A few months later, in September 1783, scientist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier conducted the first large scale balloon test, launching a most likely surprised sheep, duck and rooster into flight before the balloon crashed to the ground. Also in that year, brothers named Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier displayed the first manned flight in Paris.
Ballooning quickly took off as a competitive sport among fans, with attempts being made to set distance and height records. In 1785, a manned balloon was flown across the English Channel, carrying Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jefferies, one of the first American balloonists. Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier would die later that year in a similar attempt. On 7 January 1793, Blanchard also became the first to operate hot air balloons in America.
As a military tool, hot air balloons were used as spy vehicles during the French Revolution at the Battle of Fleurus. They also were employed during the American Civil War of the 19th century. Since the invention of winged aircraft, balloons have fallen out of military use, while retaining popularity as a hobbyist sport.
Following the work of Blanchard, modern balloonists have set several new records. In 1932, a scientist named Auguste Piccard flew a hot air balloon to a height of over 52,000 ft (15.8 km) in the first flight to reach the stratosphere. After many failed attempts, Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman became the first people to cross the Atlantic Ocean by balloon in 1978. In 1991, the longest balloon flight on record occurred piloted by Per Lindstrand and billionaire Richard Branson, and crossing 476,710 miles (7671.91 km).
Hot air balloons were the first successful attempt by humans to reach above our familiar surface. While the later aviation technology had little to do with the science behind hot air balloons, the dream of flight was given true possibility by their success. Balloon flights today are still accounted a wonder, with a consistent recurring image of beauty and serenity being a picture of hot air balloons scattered across a perfect sky.