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History of Ballooning

The caged duck looked down as terra firma slowly drifted away. Above the duck, a balloon, constructed of paper and fabric, provided the lift necessary to carry aloft the duck and its companions, a sheep and a rooster. Never before had a human, let alone a duck, flown in a balloon.

In the year 1783 a new vehicle was born to the world and much to the surprise and delight of the Age of Reason, the new machine was one which raised men off the surface of the earth and carried them sailing upon “that uninterrupted navigable ocean that comes to the threshold of every man’s door”.
It was natural that the name for this rotund and quiet vehicle should derive from the word “ball”, and so become “balloon”. It would be hard to imagine a more charming and decorative addition to the world’s means of locomotion with smoothly spherical, pear-shaped or other varieties of aerial embonpoint, she has now peopled the skies in many different textures and colour-schemes, from the blue and gold Montgolfiere that first “enclosed a cloud in a bag” and took two intrepid aeronauts over Paris, to the polyethylene giants of today who lift their loads of robot scientific equipment to twenty miles above the earth and often have their translucent sunlit envelopes mistaken for flying saucers.

The present selection of balloon prints has not been made for its historical or aeronautical significance – although such appeals are not lacking – but quite simply from the point of view of their pictorial quality. Balloons with their differing shapes and colours, when seen in relation to earthbound human beings, habitations or landscape – or in their own right as interesting individuals – are for many people charming and entertaining objects. When seen by the artists and engravers of the eighteenth century and the Regency, they take on an added period flavour and such balloon pictures have now won their own small renown among collectors. Most of the early prints were arbitrarily hand coloured and as we only know the true colours of a few “classic” balloons, this artistic licence adds variety and gaiety to the subject. Of the two types of balloon invested in 1783, the Montgolfieres (hot air) were often more elaborately decorated than the Charlieres (hydrogen) and in our present selection it is indeed the Montgolfiere that triumphs, chiefly because there was no basket slung beneath her and consequently no net to enshroud the envelope and obscure the decoration. The quality of the engraving, as one would expect, varies greatly, but some of the cruder technical achievements make up in charm for what they lack in sophistication. Balloon prints, like all other categories of engravings and lithography, are subject to collectors’ whims and include the common, the not so common and the rare, but again as with so many other kinds – the rarity bears no relation to decorative quality and no special attention has been paid here to financial or rarity considerations.

The decorative effect of ballooning prints depends surely, on the relationship between the comfortable curvilinear forms of the aerostats themselves and the more angular contract of their surroundings. The vertical and horizontal lines of buildings, trees and humans and especially the tall thin supporting masts – where they occur – combine with the plumpness of the envelope to produce a mood of calmness and repose, while the vehicle herself, by our mere knowledge of her behaviour, evokes a feeling of lightness and levitation, of ascension and escape.

A balloon is in essence a simple affair and consists of an envelope containing a gas weighing less than the surrounding air, which therefore causes the envelope to rise in the atmosphere like a cork. The concept of aerostation (lighter-than-air flight) only appeared in western civilisation late in the Middle Ages – despite the ever present phenomenon of the cloud – whereas the idea of aviation (heavier-than-air flight) has worked in the minds of men ever since they looked at the birds and envied them. It is strange to consider how many billions of men and women had to watch the burning debris of a fire mount up with the smoke and flames before two French paper-makers of Annonay, near Lyons, drew the correct conclusions and thought of the hot-air balloon. A full sized man-carrying balloon could have been made successfully at any time since the invention of light textile fabrics, which date back many years before Christ, but the appropriate collision of ideas and circumstance had to wait until the end of the 18th century.

In 1670 the Jesuit Father de Lana had published his famous design for an aerial ship to be raised by four copper globes evacuated of air, but he forgot that atmospheric pressure would collapse these airless spheres and did not advance the necessary step towards employing hot-air and textile globes. It is now believed that another Jesuit Priest (the Portuguese Father Gusmao) thought out the idea correctly and made a miniature hot-air balloon as early as 1709, but the significance of the event was lost on his contemporaries and he never went on with his work. The brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere first though of their hot-air balloon in 1782, sent up a small version at Annonay in June of 1783, a full-sized man-carrying example in the following September and saw their balloon make the first free aerial voyage of all time at Paris on November 21st, manned by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes.

On December 1st of that same year 1873 Professor Charles and one of the Robert brothers made the first free voyage in a hydrogen balloon, a type of aerostat which Charles had brilliantly invented in almost a modern form a few weeks before, after hearing only second hand accounts of the Montgolfier’s work and not realising their lifting power came from hot air. The hot-air balloon (known as a Montgolfiere) was suspended limp between two masts and inflated by having her neck held over a fire beneath the take-off platform, another fire was lit in a brazier and then slung in the neck of the balloon to provide a continuous supply of hot air on the voyage.

Altitude was controlled by stoking or damping down the brazier fire. The hydrogen balloon (Charliere) was also hung for inflation between masts in the early days and its long thin neck attached to the primitive apparatus in which sulphuric acid was passed over iron filings to make the gas. Altitude was controlled by dropping ballast or valving the gas through the crown of the envelope, although the neck was also left open so that the gas – expanding as the balloon rose – could blow off harmlessly without bursting the envelope. Coal gas came into use later and – in our own day – helium, which has the great advantage of being non-inflammable.

The balloon, by and large, has been a peaceful creature and on the occasions when she has been employed to drop bombs – by the Austrians on Venice in 1849 and by the Japanese on the United States in the last war – the assaults proved signal failures.

True, she has since the time of Napoleon’s aerostiers been a favourite floating platform for observers in warfare, but this role was comparatively passive. In general, the balloon has drifted about silently at the pleasant mercy of the winds – a friendly aerial ship. For nearly a century and three-quarters, men and women have ascended in her to view the beauties of the earth from a new vantage point, or to penetrate the clouds and float in a freshly discovered world of grandeur and silence. She has, of course, been put also to odd uses through the years, she has carried up showmen on the backs of horses and even stags, she has lifted parachute jumpers into the air ever since Monsieur Garnerin amazed the crowds of Paris in 1797 when he released himself from a hydrogen balloon and came swinging uncomfortably but safely down beneath his line canopy, she has had her pilots ascend at night to discharge fireworks and on occasion set her alight and so destroy both her and themselves, others have sought to cross the North Pole in her and one of her kind lies hidden beneath the artic ice to this day and since the earliest years she has taken up scientists to investigate the atmosphere and once lifted them as high as thirteen miles to do their work. In miniature she has delighted generations of children, served decades of meteorologists as instrument carrier and saved the lives of sea-crashed airmen by raising the end of the aerial wires by which they radioed their calls for help.

Today the free balloon, both large and small is used in thousands the world over as a servant of science, with only a handful of aeronauts surviving to throw a net over her envelope, toggle a basket on to her hoop and set off on an aerial journey. But for more than a century she played her part – like any other useful vehicle in everyday life. Men and women flew in her for the love of it, showmen performed in her, sportsmen competed in her and fugitives escaped in her. Perhaps one day in the distant future, when the sky is all but monopolised by the roaring monsters of jet propulsion, a little band of tranquil men will cut out and join the coloured gores and make a gay balloon, then they will take her out into quiet green fields or up to mountain peaks and there ascent to – bestride the lazy-pacing clouds and sail upon the bosom of the air.

Historical Ballooning Timeline

A hydrogen balloon piloted by Vincent Lunardi took off from London watched by a crowd of 100,000. It flew for an incredible one hour and 40 minutes and travelled 13 miles. Joseph Montgolfier made a flight in Le Fleusseiles, the largest man-carrying hot air balloon ever built, with room for 30 passengers.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jefferies crossed the English Channel by gas balloon, carrying a letter – the world’s first airmail.

The first parachute jump was made by A J Garnerin, a French balloonist and adventurer who dropped 3,000 feet from a gas balloon.

The British Balloon Corps was founded. It developed the use of steel storage cylinders for hydrogen. Balloons were now widely used for military purposes – at the siege of Paris, they carried passengers, pigeons and mail.

Swedish aeronaut Salomon Andrea tried to reach the North Pole by balloon. He didn’t make it.

US newspaperman Gordon Bennett sponsored the first balloon race. Sixteen gas balloons took off from Paris. The event is still held annually.

The First Manned Balloon Flight to the Stratosphere and First use of a Pressurized Capsule for a Balloon Flight: On August 18, Auguste Piccard, a Swiss Scientist, soars into the stratosphere in his balloon, ‘FNRS,’ and sets a new altitude record of 52,498 feet. Over the next few years, altitude records continue to be set, almost monthly, in the push to reach ever higher into the stratosphere.

New Altitude Record is Set and Remains for 20 Years: Explorer II, a helium gas balloon, sets the altitude record at 72,395 feet, or 13.7 miles, with two crew members on board. For the first time in history, it is proven that humans can travel and survive in a pressurized chamber at extremely high altitudes. This flight sets a milestone for aviation and paves the way for future space travel and the concept of manned flight in space. The highly publicized flight is also able to carry live radio broadcasts from the balloon.

Altitude Record and Highest Parachute Jump: Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger jumps from a balloon at 102,800 feet on August 16th and sets a world high altitude parachute jump (where he breaks the sound barrier with his body) and freefall record that still stands today.

The era of modern hot air ballooning began as one lifted off from Nebraska with a propane-powered burner.

Current Official Altitude Record Set: Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor A. Prather of the U.S. Navy ascend to 113,739.9 feet in ‘Lee Lewis Memorial,’ a polyethylene balloon. They land in the Gulf of Mexico where, with his pressure suit filling with water, and unable to stay afloat, Prather drowns.

Hot air ballooning really took off as a modern sport, with new synthetic materials and smaller, lighter burners, mostly made in the UK.

First Balloon to Cross the Atlantic: Double Eagle II, a helium balloon carrying Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman, becomes the first balloon to cross the Atlantic. A new duration record is set with a flight time of 137 hours.

The first Bristol Balloon Fiesta took place, now Europe’s largest annual balloon fiesta with more than 130 balloons taking part. Clive Bailey is Flight Director.

First Balloon to Cross the Pacific: Thirteen-story high Double Eagle V, piloted by Ben Abruzzo, Larry Newman, Ron Clark and Rocky Aoki of Japan, launches from Nagashimi, Japan on November 10 and and lands 84 hours, 31 minutes later in Mendocino National Forest in California. A new distance record is set at 5,768 miles.

First Solo Transatlantic Balloon Flight: Joe Kittinger flies 3,535 miles from Caribou, Maine to Savona, Italy in his helium-filled balloon ‘Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon of Peace

First Hot Air Balloon to Cross the Atlantic: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson fly a distance of 2,900 miles in 33 hours and set a new record for hot air ballooning. The balloon, at the time, is the largest ever flown at 2.3 million cubic feet of capacity.

Hot Air High Altitude Record: Per Lindstrand sets a solo world record of 65,000 feet for the greatest height ever reached by a hot air balloon.

First Hot Air Balloon to Cross the Pacific: Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson become the first to traverse the Pacific by hot air balloon, reaching speeds in the jet stream of up to 245 mph, in their ‘Otsuka Flyer,’ which travels 6,700 miles in 46 hours. They fly from Japan to Arctic Canada and break the world distance record.

Somerset’s Andy Elson piloted the first balloon to fly over Mount Everest, setting some seven ballooning world records along the way including first balloon flight over Everest, first Nepal to Tibet balloon flight, highest take off by a balloon at 15,000ft and highest landing by a balloon at 16,000ft.

The world hot air balloon altitude record of 65,000 feet was achieved by Per Lindstrand.

The first round-the-world trip in a hot air balloon was planned by Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson. It failed.

Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard made the first successful circumnavigation of the world in a balloon, Breitling Orbitor 3 on 1st March 1999 and landed 20 days later in the Egyptian Desert.

David Hempleman Adams replicated the flight attempted by Soloman Adree in 1897 to reach the North Pole in a balloon, on June 1st 2000 he made it after flying for 6 days, taking of from Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Steve Fossett became the first man to travel alone around the world – in a Bristol-built balloon. It was his sixth attempt.

Somerset’s Andy Elson attempted to fly a Bristol-made balloon to the edge of space and break the world hot air altitude record. It failed after a tear in the balloon let the inflating helium escape.

The world attitude record was broken in India by Dr Vijapat Singhania, he flew his 1.6 million cubic foot balloon to over 70,000 feet.