A Brief History of Ballooning
The hot air balloon holds a special place in the development of human technology. November 21, 1783 marks the first ever untethered human flight completed by Jean-FranÁois Pil‚tre de Rozier and FranÁois Laurent d’Arlandes. But the history of hot air balloons started much earlier than that. At least two millennia earlier…
The Birth of the Hot Air Variety
The first hot air balloons appeared almost 2000 years ago. Small lanterns that were sealed at the top with sufficient enveloping space to provide a positive buoyant force were used for military signals during the Threeprovide the hot air to produce a lifting force. They were made with a light weight self-supporting bamboo frame while the rice paper was oiled to make it fire resistant. These novel flying devices are credited to the military strategist Zhuge Liang during the 3rd century AD. However, these may not have been the first hot air balloons. Several historians over the past few decades have speculated that a type of floating bag filled with hot air might have been the device utilized by people of the Nazca culture in an effort to design their famous ground figures and lines over 2000 years ago.
The European Connection
In European culture, demonstrations of lighter than air flight were not seen until 1709. Bartolomeu de Gusmao succeeded in floating a ball for King John V in order to gain support for his airship designs. He never completed this particular design, but continued with his love for aeronautics until his death. It wasnít until about three quarters of a century later before successful lifting of people, rather than objects or animals, was completed. Credit for the first tethered flight in a hot air balloon goes to Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier for their flights on October 15th, 1783. Free flight was accomplished later that same year followed by the rapid adoption of the technology for military purposes. Balloons first experienced war in Europe, about 1500 years after Zhuge Liang saw its value, on June 26th, 1784 during the Battle of Fleurus.
The Age of Evolution
The term hot air balloon is often misused to represent any balloon capable of lifting a person. Most ballooning between about the 19th til the mid 20th century was, in fact, accomplished using gas balloons, that is, an envelope filled with a lighter than air gas such as helium or hydrogen. Many of the earliest balloons using lighter than air gasses were hybrids, that is, they utilized both a hot air component as well as a ballast of lighter than air gas. Some of the worst ballooning accidents in history resulted from these hybrid designs because of their use of hydrogen, which while much lighter than helium, and therefore capable of supporting a heavier load, became a hazard to themselves by having an ignition source so close to a highly inflammable gas.
The advantages of gas ballooning are significant, especially when considering the materials available before the invention of Nylon, the primary material used to construct modern hot air balloons. The first unsupported balloons were constructed using silk, which while extremely lightweight and strong, has a very high cost. The cost of materials, along with their structural properties, such as ultimate tensile strength and strength to weight ratio, was one of the major limiting factors in balloon design. When it comes to volume, the larger the container, the smaller the ration of surface area to volume. So, the bigger the envelope, the larger the amount of gas providing buoyancy that can be contained, at an ever increasing efficiency. However, to make a very large balloon needs a lot of material, and when the material is as expensive as silk, this cost sets a maximum size, and therefore payload, for the entire balloon. After the invention of Nylon, and its subsequent manufacturing development for parachutes in the war effort, Nylon became the obvious material of choice for hot air balloons.
The Competitive Era
With the cost factor reduced, ballooning took off around the 1950s with new records being set and broken constantly. Ed Yost is credited with much of the development of the modern hot air balloon and completed his first successful flight on October 22, 1960. Yost established 13 world records with hot air balloons, but his achievements were soon to be followed by many other pioneers. Records for longest flight, crossing of the oceans, round the world trips, highest flights and solo flights of all types have been kept for ballooning, and every year, new efforts are made to break them. The exciting world of hot air ballooning is always expanding with new technologies and techniques being developed every day.