A brief history of ballooning
It all started with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster...
Like many inventions, the history of ballooning is rife with varied elements. Sure, forward-thinking scientists and adventurers have played fundamental roles. But the story is also one of barnyard animals, smoke and paper and wartime postal service.
The Brothers Montgolfier
Ballooning began in the 1700s with French papermaking brothers Jacques Etienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier. After discovering that paper bags filled with smoke tend to rise, the Montgolfiers moved on to larger objects. On June 4, 1783, they launched an 11 meter (35 foot) cloth balloon at a gathering in Annonay, France. Several months later, they expanded into passengers: sending a sheep, a duck and a rooster into flight for eight minutes. They made it back to earth safely. Incidentally, it took the Montgolfiers awhile to realize hot air, not smoke, causes balloons to rise.
Driven by damp straw
On October 15, 1783, the first human ventured aboard a rising balloon. French inventor Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier made history when he rose 80 feet in a tethered Montgolfier-made balloon. A little over a month later, on November 21, 1783, he and the Marquis Francois-Laurent d'Arlandes cut the cord and flew over Paris for 25 minutes. Fueling the balloon's burner with a combination of damp straw, old rags and rotting meat, the men ascended as high as 1,000 meters (some 3,300 feet).
While the Montgolfiers fine-tuned their hot-air balloons, another French group was experimenting with hydrogen balloons. Jacques Alexandre Charles, a chemist, worked with craftsmen brothers Marie-Noel and Anne-Jean Robert to launch the first hydrogen balloon, made of rubberized silk, in Paris on August 27, 1783. That December, Charles and Marie-Noel Robert climbed aboard themselves and lifted off in Paris, floating more than 25 miles and reaching an altitude of 610 meters (2,000 feet).
The "rozier" design
Rise of the rozier
Inspired by both the hot-air and hydrogen balloon models, Pilatre de Rozier came up with a hybrid, now known as the "rozier" design. This balloon featured an inner hydrogen-filled chamber surrounded by a larger hot-air balloon. Pilatre de Rozier, the first man to take a balloon flight, would later became the sport's first casualty when his hybrid balloon burned over the English Channel. The rozier model, left by the wayside until the 1970s, has now made a comeback, with enhancements for safety.
From fad to warfare
In a relatively short time after the first animal voyage, ballooning gained fad status in Europe, with folks flocking to see lift-offs. On January 7, 1785, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries successfully crossed the English Channel. In 1797, Andre Garnerin made the first parachute jump from a balloon. Around this same time, the devices began to see other uses, like war service. In 1794, France began using tethered (captive) balloons to observe enemy movements. The U.S. Civil War saw a balloon corps in the Union Army (again for observation). And during the Franco-Prussian War, Parisians communicated with the outside world via mail-carrying balloons and carrier pigeons. World War II brought balloon barrages.
Bagging the basket
In addition to distance, balloonists began to vie with one another for altitude records. They soon found that an open basket didn't hold up to atmospheric demands. Thus, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard (grandfather of Breitling Orbiter pilot Bertrand Piccard) designed the first airtight cabin -- an aluminum sphere. Auguste became the first human to reach the stratosphere, climbing to 15,780 meters (51,744 feet) on May 27, 1931 and later to 16,201 meters (53,155 feet). Two U.S. Navy officers set the current altitude record in the early 1960s, when they rose 34,668 meters (113,746 feet) as part of a series of experiments related to space travel.
The late 20th century has brought a burst of ballooning records, with the first transatlantic crossing in 1978, the first transamerican journey in 1980 and the first transpacific crossing the following year. And, although several have attempted it, the first non-stop balloon flight around the world has yet to come.
Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, 1994; Breitling.