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Balloons and Airships

  BALLOONS (1700-1900)

At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.4 Identify the two men who made lighter­than­air flight possible.
5.5 Explain what "Montgolfier gas" was.
5.6 Identify the first two men to fly in a lighter­than­aircraft.
5.7 Summarize J.A.C. Charles' contribution to flight.
5.8 Know who isolated hydrogen.

Two brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, made manned, lighter-than-air flight possible. These two papermakers living in France, although not scientists, were highly educated and Interested in science and flight. They had read the works of the English scientist Joseph Priestly who, In 1774, had discovered oxygen and had written scientific papers on the properties of air.

In 1782, while watching a fire in his fireplace, Joseph became interested in the "force" that caused the sparks and smoke to rise. He made a small bag out of silk and lighted a fire under the opening at the bottom causing it to rise. The brothers thought the burning created a gas which they called "Montgolfier gas." They didn't realize that their balloons rose because the heated air inside was lighter than the surrounding air.

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, made manned, lighter-than-air flight possible.

In June 1783, the brothers put on their first public demonstration using a paper-lined linen bag 38-feet in diameter. The balloon rose to an altitude of 6,000 feet and traveled over a mile before landing. After a demonstration before the Academy of Science in Paris, in which the brothers sent aloft a sheep, rooster, and duck, man was ready to fly. In Paris, on November 21, 1783, two men flew for the first time in a lighter-than­air craft. They were Pilatre de Rozier, who later became the first man killed in an aircraft accident, and Marquis d'Arlandes, an infantry officer. The flight lasted 25 minutes and covered a little more than five miles.

These hot­air balloons stayed aloft only as long as a fire continued to heat the trapped air, and this made them dangerous. It also limited the duration of the flight because a great deal of wood and straw had to be carried for fuel.

When the Montgolfiers demonstrated their hot­air balloon for the Academy of Science, they made such an impression that they hired a young scientist, J.A.C. Charles, to carry out further research on balloons. Charles was familiar with the "flammable air" (hydrogen) isolated by Henry Cavendish. He also realized that whatever "Montgolfier gas" was, it was not as light and therefore not as efficient as hydrogen. Charles had read of Tiberius Cavallo's experiments and his difficulties in containing hydrogen In small paper bags. Therefore, for his balloons he selected small globes of rubberized silk. On August 23, 1783, a globe was inflated with hydrogen and it rose into the air. Benjamin Franklin witnessed this event and was so impressed he immediately wrote to scientists in the United States stressing the military importance of this new invention. On December 1, 1783, Charles and another man made the first flight in a hydrogen balloon. This flight lasted for over two hours and covered more than 27 miles.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.9 Identify the first country to form an air arm to its Army.
5.10 Describe the contributions to lighter-than­air flight made by Blanchard & Jeffries, Coxwell & Glaisher, Poe, Verne, and Gay­Lussac.
5.11 Identify the organization that used balloons for high­altitude atmospheric studies.

Following these early flights, ballooning became very popular In Europe. Between 1783 and 1790, 76 flights were recorded in France alone. In 1793, the French government formed an air arm to the Army, and balloons were used for reconnaissance during the French Revolution. During this period, the hydrogen balloon became more popular than the hot­air balloon. Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries made the first balloon flight from one nation to another. They flew across the English Channel from England to France. The flight covered about 20 miles and required almost two hours to complete. Blanchard also piloted the first balloon in the United States. The flight took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 9, 1793, and among the many witnesses was President George Washington.

As balloons became bigger and better constructed, their altitudes began to increase Joseph­Louis Gay­Lussac, a French physicist; chemist, and balloonist, recorded several flights of over 20,000 feet. These flights In 1804 produced some puzzling experiences-dizziness, rapid pulse rate, and unconsciousness Today, it is known that these problems were the result of oxygen starvation. Until scientists discovered the cause of the physical problems to man, high­altitude flights ceased. They resumed in the late 1850s, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) began using balloons at high altitudes for atmospheric studies.

Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher conducted many flights for BAAS, setting several altitude records. On September 5, 1862, these two men set their highest record of 30,000 feet, but almost lost their lives in the process. Although altitude records were set, these were not the primary reasons for the flights. Scientists were wanting to learn more about the atmosphere by determining the heights and altitudes of clouds, detecting electrical charges, and mapping air currents.

In addition to scientific research, pleasure ballooning made a resurgence in the late 1860s. Stories about ballooning by authors, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne, helped spark the public's imagination. This helped make ballooning a popular pastime. However, balloons were not just pleasure or scientific devices but were also instruments of war.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.12 Summarize the use of balloons in the Civil War.
5.13 Summarize the use of balloons for stunts.

Balloons had been used degrees of success when first used in the French Revolution. The United States first used balloons for military purposes during the Civil War. While balloonists for both the North and South accomplished many military missions, the use of balloons stopped in 1863 when the Union disbanded its balloon corps. The failure was a result of many factors, such as commanders playing down the importance of balloons, rivalries between balloonists, and the South's lack of materials to build balloons.

Federal observation balloon Intrepid being inflated.
Battle of Fair Oaks, Va., May 1862. (NARA 111-B-680)

After the Civil War ended, many of the military balloonists became barnstormers. These men, and later women, would travel around the country charging for rides, shooting off fireworks, dropping animals with parachutes, and performing aerial trapeze acts. In the 1880s and 1890s, people began jumping with parachutes from balloons.

Most of the hot­air balloons used in stunts were very dangerous. Unlike earlier balloons which were built better and carried their heat source, these balloons used in stunts were held over bonfires trapping the heated air and then lifting off. Many of the barnstormers were killed or injured when their balloons ripped apart, cooled off too fast, or burst into flames. For the most part, the end of the nineteenth century saw the end of the balloonist performing stunts. Two high­altitude flights, one in 1875 and one in 1894, ended man's high­altitude flights until the 1920s; instead, unmanned high­altitude scientific balloons were launched - the first by the French in 1892.



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Updated: 03 February, 2011