Hot air ballooning sits squarely at the intersection of science and art. Many early balloonists were scientists who wished to study Earth from above, but even more of them were showmen. Hot air balloons can be visually spectacular, adorned with bright colors, intricate patterns, and unique shapes; yet they are impractical, with few options for navigation. They invariably draw a crowd, as much today as they did in the late 18th century, when Europe briefly found itself in the grip of a balloon obsession now called balloonomania.
In the summer of 1783, a French paper manufacturer named Joseph-Michel Montgolfier watched his wife’s freshly washed blouse dry over the hearth. He noted how the blouse inflated as it filled with the less dense hot air, and he had an idea.
In what was likely an advertising stunt, Montgolfier and his brother Jacques-Étienne constructed a 30-foot-tall balloon out of some of their lightest and most delicate paper. It was affixed to a brazier beneath, the heat from which would lift the balloon into the air. This first ever balloon flight would take place on June 5, 1783, achieving an estimated altitude of 6,000 feet and lasting all of 10 minutes.
The balloon was an instant hit. The French Academy of Sciences organized a committee to determine whether the technology was worth investing in. The ensuing balloonomania even reached Versailles, where King Louis XIV invited the brothers to make an ascent.
People wrote to the Montgolfiers in droves, volunteering to man future flights. Ultimately, they chose Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier for their test pilot. Pilâtre was a scientist, having invented his own gas mask and blowtorch by the age of 29. He was also personable, with connections in the Academy of Sciences and the royal court. For his copilot, the Montgolfiers selected the equally well-connected Marquis François Laurent d’Arlandes, a major in the royal guard.
The launch took place on November 21, 1783 from the outskirts of Paris. The new balloon, more than twice the size of the original, had a unique design in which Pilâtre and d’Arlandes were separated by the balloon’s neck and could not fully see or hear each other in flight. When the balloon was untethered and quickly rose to 900 feet, the Marquis understandably panicked.
Drifting over the Seine, the Marquis became convinced that the balloon had caught fire. He tried to warn Pilâtre, who thought he was merely gawking at the scenery. On the other side of the river, the balloon nearly collided with the Church of Saint-Sulpice, then was almost caught in the turning blades of a windmill. It finally touched down on the Butte aux Cailles, where the Marquis jumped from the basket and fled. Pilâtre embraced his adoring public, who responded by seizing his bright green topcoat and tearing it to shreds for souvenirs.
Balloonomania was in full swing. The colorful domes became a popular motif in consumer goods, adorning everything from clothing to dishware to bidets. Launches were well attended, and delays would often result in riots. When physicist Jacques Alexandre César Charles launched a balloon from the Tuileries Garden, it drew a crowd of over 400,000—perhaps the largest in pre-Revolutionary France, and over half the city’s population at that time. Among them was the ambassador Benjamin Franklin, who wrote to his fellows at England’s Royal Society on the subject.
He wasn’t the only one. Swiss chemist Aimé Argand had paid a visit to King George III at Windsor Castle, where he demonstrated a miniature balloon. The king was apparently so taken by this that he wrote to Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, offering his own money for balloon research. Banks replied skeptically. While he acknowledged their potential, he saw balloons as a passing novelty. He suggested astronomy as a preferable method of studying the skies.
Skepticism could not keep ballooning out of England. Aspiring English balloonists, lacking government funding, were forced to get creative. Vincent Lunardi hung his balloon from London’s Lyceum Theatre and charged admission. He sold over 20,000 tickets, and his eventual flights made him a star.
Balloons were all the rage in England by the summer of 1784. That year, there were balloon launches in all its major cities. Balloon souvenirs lined storefronts, and balloon ballads were sung in the streets. Even one-time skeptic Joseph Banks became a secret balloonomaniac. He assigned his secretary to keep him apprised of new developments, while he perused his sister Sophia’s collection of balloon-related newspaper clippings.
Scientific rigor, however, was totally absent. Enter James Sadler, a baker with an interest in the sciences. He had been experimenting with small balloons for months by the time of his first manned flight on October 2, 1784. He took with him a variety of scientific instruments. Sadler was badly bruised in the resulting crash landing, but his ego remained intact, and he vowed to cross the English Channel by Christmas.
His rivals couldn’t let that challenge stand unanswered. Among them were Pilâtre and the unlikely duo of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries.
Blanchard was French born, and an old hand at ballooning; he had been among the first applicants to man the Montgolfier balloon. Failing that, he sought funding in England, where he met Jeffries, an American physician who had defected to Britain during the Revolutionary War. Blanchard believed that balloons could be made navigable like ships on the sea. Jeffries packed scientific tools and carefully recorded data during flights. Despite different goals, they were both committed to a more rigorous approach.
Pilâtre had a clear advantage. He intended to fly out of Boulogne in France, with the blessings of king and country in the form of 40,000 crowns' worth of funding. He also had an innovative design: a hot air balloon with a hydrogen balloon grafted on top. But unfavorable winds, a budding romance, and balloon-eating rats kept him grounded.
Meanwhile, Blanchard and Jeffries quarreled. Blanchard tried to steal the glory by wearing a leaden belt in the basket, claiming that it was too heavy for both passengers, and prodding Jeffries to step out. Jeffries noticed the trickery and Blanchard relented, but not without forcing Jeffries to leave most of his tools behind. They took to the skies on January 7, 1785.
The flight began with each man dropping the other’s national flag over the side of the basket. Over the Channel, the balloon rapidly descended, and they were forced to jettison most of their cargo, keeping only a barometer and a bottle of brandy. As they approached the cliffs of the Pas de Calais, with few options left for ballast, both men undressed and jettisoned their clothes. Over the Forest of Guînes, the basket brushed against the treetops.
Jeffries, ever the quick thinker, grabbed the emergency flotation bladders. He and Blanchard relieved themselves into the emergency flotation bladders, and tossed them. Jeffries managed to grasp the treetops and guide them to a successful landing on the other side. Stark naked, freezing cold, and badly shaken, they were soon met with a group of onlookers and carried to Calais in celebration. Blanchard received a royal pension, and made 63 flights over the course of his life. Jeffries never flew again.
Their rivals were not discouraged. Sadler eventually set the loftier goal of crossing the Irish Sea, but never succeeded. Pilâtre attempted a flight over the Channel shortly after Blanchard and Jeffries, but discovered a fatal flaw in his design when the brazier of his lower hot air balloon ignited the hydrogen balloon above at 5,000 feet. This was the first recorded death of a balloonist in flight.
Now that its dangers were abundantly clear, ballooning fell out of favor with the public. Flying was no longer as lucrative as it once had been. Some continued the art, but the ballooning boom was decidedly over.
Still, some attempted the use of balloons for practical purposes. 1794 saw the founding of the French Aerostatic Corps, the first army unit to specialize in aerial reconnaissance. Hydrogen balloons were present at the Battle of Fleurus, a turning point that led to the French victory in the War of the First Coalition. The Aerostatic Corps also participated in Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, but was disbanded in 1799. Balloons were not used again in battle until the American Civil War. Later, some meteorologists, like Gaston Tissandier and Joseph Gay-Lussac, used balloons to study weather. When poet Percy Shelley launched a series of balloons in 1812 bearing his manifesto “A Declaration of Rights,” he saw them as beacons of hope, suns to shine truth over the world.
Balloons have always been a symbol of the wonders of invention, of infinite possibilities. They are just as likely to draw a crowd today as they did during the craze of the 1780s. Hot air balloon festivals are still commonplace, with some, such as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, boasting over 500 participating balloons each year.