Hot air balloon history chronicles our first journey into the clouds. Hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers flew over the fields at Kitty Hawk, inventors took to the skies of France in hot air balloons. These balloons became symbols of innovation, freedom, and culture. They toured fairs, led expeditions, and displayed the progress of their countries.
Read on to learn about hot air balloon history, including the major innovations and what they were used for. They may not have been inventions from necessity, but they represent an essential aspect of aviation history. They shouldn’t be forgotten.
Hot Air Balloon History: First Flight
The first hot air balloons came into the world in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers built theirs out of silk and paper in Paris, France. It may seem amazing to think that they took to the skies supported by paper (truthfully, it was!). Two men, de Rozier and Laurent, stood on a round wooden platform tethered to the balloon. They fed the fire as they climbed in altitude to nearly 500 feet.
This historic flight lasted 25 minutes and traveled a distance of over 5 miles before landing safely outside of Paris. It may not seem like much in miles, but it represents a huge leap forward in our expectations. Men (and women) now had the ability to dream of flying, an idea that had not been realized since Leonardo Da Vinci conceived it with his gliders centuries before.
Competition for the Skies
Just 10 days following the Montgolfier flight, a physicist named Jacques Alexander Charles debuted a gas balloon (also in Paris). This balloon flew for over 2 hours and traveled 25 miles on its onboard hydrogen, which was an English invention that had debuted only 7 years earlier in the lab of Henry Cavendish.
The gas balloons really took off. Throughout the early 1800s, people used them as the primary mode of air travel, when they could. In reality, hot air balloons never reached the common usage quickly seen by airplanes for a simple reason: time. It took forever to inflate a balloon, forever to keep it hot, and the result cost so much that no one could use it practically.
Hot Air Balloon History’s Transition to Modern Day
Hot air balloon history does not end in the 1800s, however. After conducting long-distance flights and flights in the Americas, the early 1900s ushered in the invention of the airship. This was a large balloon supported by a frame that could carry cargo and people for military or luxury travel purposes. They used the same technology that powered the gas balloons of the Frenchmen 100 years earlier.
The Van Zeppelin debuted the idea and the Hindenburg ended it by lighting on fire in 1937 and killing 35 people. After that, the technology seemed too dangerous and expensive to continue using on a large scale.
Hot air balloon history begins with a luxury invention that people capitalized on by turning it into war tech and luxury travel accommodations. Of course, they fell out of regular use. However, few modes of travel quite capture the spirit of invention and childlike awe like the hot air balloon.