When Was The Hot Air Balloon Invented? Wild History

Curious about when the hot air balloon was invented and who built the first hot air balloon?

The history of ballooning is a fascinating one. It includes Benjamin Franklin, a couple of french paper makers, and a couple of barnyard animals. After many repeated experiments during more than 20 centuries, the secret of aerial navigation was discovered toward the end of the 18th century in 1782 when Stephen (Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier) and Joseph Montgolfier made their ingenious aerostatic experiment. Smoke from fire hovered over Parisian rooftops for hours before it ascended into clouds – this inspiration that led to an invention that changed our world forever!

History of Ballooning Montgolfier
Montgolfier Balloon Flight

The first hot air balloon flight tests

The younger brother Stephen realized that if a light paper bag were to be made and filled with smoke or ash from their fire then it would naturally rise up towards the sky. In November of 1782 in Avignon, the Montgolfier brothers built a light paper bag in an oblong shape with approximately 40 cubic feet of capacity and used it to test their experiment. 

The paper bag had an opening at the bottom and when they applied fire beneath it, the internal temperature increased causing it to rise. Their first balloon experiment rose to the height of 75 feet. Encouraged by their success, the Montgolfier brothers made their next experiment on a much larger scale. Their new envelope was 600 cubic feet in capacity and in a spherical shape. The shape of the envelope was designed after a large short-necked glass bottle used in chemistry called a “Balloon”. When the heat was applied to the opening of the paper balloon its strings broke and ascended to 600 feet above the ground.

History of Ballooning First Montgolfier
First hot air balloon in history

The Montgolfiers were natives of Annonay, and were the sons of a wealthy paper manufacturer who had retired from business and left it in their hands. From the history that is afforded of them, it appears that they were both attached to the study of mathematical science; but it seems they were not exactly acquainted with the true nature of the substance that caused the ascent of their balloons. They attributed the ascending power to a peculiar kind of gas that was emitted by the combustion of chopped straw and wool mixed together. This, however, does not in the least detract from the merit of their discovery.

The success of a larger hot air balloons gave Motgolflier brothers the confidence to build a larger balloon. This time the hot air balloon was 35 feet in diameter. On April 3rd 1783, the balloon after being filled and released reached a height of 1000 feet and covered a distance of 3/4 of a mile. It was time for the Montgolfiers to show off their invention to the public. They built a spherical paper balloon with nearly 23k cubic feet and had a lifting capacity of 500lbs. The hot air balloon was released from its tether ropes and ascended to an astonishing 6000 feet above France.

Soon after the experiment had been made at Annonay, Stephen Montgolfier arrived in pairs. He was immediately invited to attend the sitting royal academy of science, and by that body requested to repeat his experiment at their expense. He cheerfully accepted the proposition, and soon constructed a large balloon of elliptical shape 72 feet high and 41 feet in diameter. When completed it was found to weigh 1000lbs. It was finished and decorated in a most magnificent style, elegantly ornamented over its outer surface with beautiful and appropriate designs. At a preliminary experiment, it raised 8 men off the ground.

First hot air balloon flight
The history of hot air ballooning

First Hot Air Balloon Ride

On the 12th day of September 1783, the day appointed for the first balloon flight exhibition before the members of the Royal Academy ascended with a load from 400-500lbs. Unfortunately due to high winds there was a violent gust of wind damaging the balloon. A new hot air balloon was ordered to be built in the same dimensions. The new balloon included a basket of wicker-work and was inflated in the presence of king Louis XVI and royal family in Versailles. The french king suggested a sheep, a duck, and a rooster to be placed in the basket as the first hot air ballooning passengers. With these three living animal passengers, the balloon was launched into the upper air and reached an altitude of 1500 feet. The animals landed safely at a distance of 10,000 feet from the place of ascent. The first official balloon flight was a success.

history of hot air ballooning
First hot air balloon flight

First Manned Flight

This was the first experiment in which any living creature ascended with a balloon envelope. Another was now constructed which was 74 feet high and 48 feet in diameter. With this large balloon, M. Pllatre de Rozier volunteered to make an aerial voyage. The hot air balloon had an opening at the bottom end 15 feet in diameter. Around the opening was arranged and fastened a gallery of wicker-work three feet broad, and around the outer edge of this was a balustrade of the same material three feet high, and around the lower circumference of the balloon, and immediately above the gallery platform, port-holes were worked in it for the purpose of introducing fuel to the burner unit.

The lower aperture of the balloon was suspended by chains to an iron brasier intended for the onboard heat source (fireplace). This meant the aeronaut could easily introduce fuel from the portholes as necessity required it. With this balloon, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier made several ascents to the height of two or three hundred feet with M. Girond de Vilette., while it was fastened with ropes of that length.

On the 21st of November he, in company with the marquis d’Arlandes. concluded that they would make an aerial voyage. Accordingly, the balloon was inflated and the gallery was supplied with fuel. M. Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d’Arlandes stationed themselves on opposite sides of the basket.

At a given signal, the balloon was released from its moorings and left free in the air. It rose majestically, amidst the shouts and applause of a delighted multitude until it reached a height of 3000 feet. The parties remained in the air for 25 minutes and encountered various currents of wind and changes in air temperature. During the hot air ballooning experience, there were several times in imminent danger by the balloon catching fire. The marquis became greatly agitated by this and desired to make a precipitate descent. Luckily M. Pilatre de Rozier was prepared and had brought along a sponge and bucket of water for an emergency. They raised and lowered their altitude multiple times in the atmosphere by regulating the fire in the brasier. They finally landed safely 5 miles from where they started, after having sailed over a great portion of Paris.

History of ballooning seattle
Hot air balloon history

The original documentary account of the first hot air balloon flight was witnessed and given by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Given at the chateau of La Muette, at five in the afternoon. Signed, Duc de Polignac, Duc de Guisnes, Compte de Polastron, Compte de Vaudreuil, Benjamin Franklin, Faujus de St. Fond, Delisle, Leroy, of the Academy of Sciences.

“Today, November 21st, 1783, at the Chateau de la Muette, took place an experiment with the aerostatic machine of M. de Montgolfier. The sky was partly clouded; wind north-west. At eight minutes afternoon, a mortar gave notice that the machine was about to be filled. In eight minutes, notwithstanding the wind, it was ready to set off, the marquis d’Arlandes and M. Pilatre de Rozier being in the car. I was at first intended to retain the machine a while with the ropes, to judge what weight it would bear and see that all was right. But the wind prevented it from rising vertically, and directed it toward one of the garden walls; the roped made several rents in it, one being six feet long. It was brought down again, and in two hours was set right. Having been filled again, it set off at fifty-four minutes past one, carrying the same persons. It rose in the most majestic manner and when it was about 270 feet high, the intrepid voyagers took off their hats and saluted the spectators. No one could help feeling a mingled sentiment of fear and admiration. the voyagers were soon indistinguishable; but the machine, hovering on the horizon, and displaying the most beautiful figure, rose at least 3000 feet high, and remained visible all the time. It crossed the Seine, below the barrier of La Conference, valides, was in view of all of Paris. The voyagers, satisfied with their experiment, and not wishing to travel farther, agreed to descend; but seeing that the wind was carrying them upon the houses of the Rue de Seve, Faub. St. Germin, they preserved their presence of mind, increased the fire, and continued their course through the air till they crossed Paris. They then descended quietly on the plain beyond the New Boulevard, opposite the mill of Croulebarbe, without having felt the slightest inconvenience, and having in the car two-thirds of their fuel. They could then, if they had wished, have gone three times as far as they did go, which was 5000 toises, done in from twenty to twenty-five minutes. The machine was 75 feet hight and fifty six feet in diameter; it contained 60,000 cubic feet, and carried a weight of 1600-1700 pounds.”

Ben Franklin Balloon
Ballooning ben franklin history

Although the Chinese had experimented with an airborne lantern for thousands of years, there is no proof that a human ever made an ascent. The first aerial voyages in hot air balloons with authenticated proof of flying human beings are the Montgolfier balloons. All true hot air ballooning historians must point to the Montgolfier Balloon as the first practical and fully successful experiment in navigating the air.

At the next meeting of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences of Paris, the eminent body voted Stephen Montgolfier a gold medal in having made the most important discovery of the period. The Montgolfiers did not exactly understand the cause or nature of the material that gave ascensive power to their balloons. They attributed the balloons’ ascension not to a rarified state of air, but to a peculiar gas that involved burning straw and wool. They termed these “certain materials”. It was the want for a better name, that the name given was “Montgolfier gas”. It actually fooled a few members of the Royal Academy to believe that a new lighter than air gas other than hydrogen or helium had been discovered.

Gas Balloons

On Dec. 1, 1783, only 10 days after the first manned balloon flight, Jacques Alexandre César Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert launched a balloon using hydrogen gas for lift and sand for ballast. The hydrogen balloon covered a distance of 25 miles and allowed the pilots to stay in the air for 2.5 hours. Hydrogen had been developed by Henry Cavendish in 1776, by combining iron filings and sulphuric acid. 

In 1785, Pilatre de Rozier and Romain attempted to cross the English Channel in a combined balloon using hydrogen and heat. Unfortunately, this volatile mixture of highly flammable hydrogen with fire caused both men’s deaths thirty minutes after liftoff! In 1874 Jean Pierre Blanchard successfully flew across the English channel using hydrogen. 

Ballooning made major advances through scientists and because of war.  Gas balloons were used by the french as lookouts and were often called the spies of the sky. They were attached to 500ft tether lines and allowed soldiers to document their enemies’ locations and numbers.

first gas balloon
History of first gas balloon

First American Balloon Flight

The first manned balloon flight in America occurred on January 9, 1793. It was driven by hydrogen gas and piloted by John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard had crossed the English Channel just one year earlier! President George Washington attended this “first free flight” and watched from the ground. The French military officer ascended 5800 feet from the Philadelphia Prison yard and safely landed the gas balloon on Gloucester County soil near New Jersey’s coastline.

Civil War and Balloons

It wasn’t until the civil war that the United States commissioned balloons and pilots to be used in war. Thadeus Lowe who owned a commercial balloon ride company noticed the clouds moving very quickly and believed that if he built a large enough balloon he would be able to fly from America to England. Since he didn’t have enough money for the expedition, he chatted with President Abraham Lincoln about using his balloons to help the North win the Civil War. Thadeus Lowe inflated his balloon on the White House lawn and attached a 500ft tether line along with a telegraph line into the White House press office. Thadeus ascended ascended his huge balloon to 500 feet and sent the first telegram from the air! Lincoln said ” We are going to win the war with balloons”. During the civil war, the 10 commissioned balloons called the balloon corps ascended over 3000 times. In 1862 Union General Fitz John Porter had an unexpected experience in a balloon. The tether lines broke and he flew over enemy lines. Luckily the winds changed and the balloon landed not far from where it had originally taken off. It was quite an adventure!

Civil war hot air balloon
History of hot air balloon

High Altitude Balloon Flights

In the early 20th century, August Piccard, a Swiss scientist, designed a new type of balloon in 1932. Instead of pilots ascending in a wicker basket, the balloon compartment was made of a pressurized aluminum ball. Piccard invited his friend Max Cosyns to join him on this adventurous flight to the stratosphere in a hydrogen gas balloon. The balloon broke a new altitude record reaching a height of 52,000 feet.  In wasn’t until 1935 that Captain Albert Stevens and Orvil Anderson set a hard-to-beat record. The Explorer II, (their helium balloon) reach a height of 13.7 miles above the earth. This record held for 20 years. These early stratospheric flights paved the way for space travel.

History of ballooning stratosphere
Highest altitude flight ballooning

The Reinvention of the Hot Air Balloon

The modern hot air balloon was invented out of the General Mills balloon program which was funded by the US government (The Navy).  They believed that hot air balloons could be used as an extraction method for soldiers or a spy system with cameras disguised as weather balloons. Ed Yost and Don Piccard both worked on the Navy program at General Mills and went on to build the modern hot air balloon using a propane burner and nylon fabric.  Their first flight in the balloon that Ed Yost built was called the channel champ and flew of the English channel. Ed Yost helped build Raven Industries in the early 1960s and Don Piccard went on to build Piccard balloons. 

Ed yost history of ballooning
History of ballooning ed yost

Advances In Ballooning Technology

Technology in ballooning has made huge advances in the last 20 years. Balloon travel to a specific long distance location still isn’t available, but, the fabric being used is now airtight, the propane burners are more extremely powerful, and the advances in accessible weather information make ballooning very safe.

Modern Ballooning Technology

Balloon manufactures have added what is called a parachute vent for quickly cooling the envelope of the balloon. The parachute vent allows a balloon pilot to quickly dump hot air on landing allowing for the basket of the balloon to not be pulled by the momentum of the envelope. The vent can also be used if a balloon pilot over burns causing the hot air balloon to slow it’s ascent.

Balloon Burners

Hot air balloon manufactures have built powerful fuel-efficient propane burners and larger fuel tanks. The original propane burners in the 1960s released 2-3 million BTU. New burners in 2022 release 30 million BTU with each pull. The hot air balloon burners also now have pilot lights that stay lit and ignitors on the burners themselves.

Hot Air Balloon Fabric

The hot air balloon fabric was originally made out of paper or silk. Modern-day hot air balloons use nylon fabric with a special coating that helps the fabric be airtight.

Hot Air Balloon Flights

These days you can see hot air balloons flying all over the world. You can purchase a ride and fly in Napa Valley over the grapevines, in front of Mt. Rainier (an active volcano) in Seattle, fly over the swiss alps, and even join 550 balloons at the Alburquerque balloon festival. Currently, there are around 40 pilots in the world that actively fly hydrogen and over 4000 hot air balloon pilots that use propane burners and the Montgolfier method.

Famous and Noteworthy Balloon Pilots

If you’d like to read some more fascinating ballooning adventures be sure to check out Finding My Virginity by Sir Richard Branson. He has multiple hot air ballooning and hybrid balloon records for flying across the Pacific, Atlantic, along with his attempts to fly around the world. His transatlantic flight landed him a world record. John Wise’s book through the air from 1783 is a culmination of stories of his 40 years of ballooning adventures.  Also, check out Fedor Konyukhov who completed the fastest solo hot air balloon flight around the world. His 33,000km journey won the record breaking time in the Guinness world record book –  just under 11 days.

History of famous balloon pilots
Famous ballooning pilots

Additional FAQs About Ballooning History

 When was hot air ballooning invented?  

The hot air balloon was invented in 1783 by Joeseph and Stephen Montgolfier. They built a hot air balloon out of paper which Pilatre De Rozier flew over Paris. Modern-day hot air ballooning using a controlled propane burner and nylon fabric was invented in 1961 by Ed Yost at Raven Industries.

What fuel did the first hot air balloon use?

The first hot air balloon developed by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 used “Montgolfier Gas” to heat the air temperature in the balloon. The balloon fuel for the fire was a combination of straw and wool. At the time the Montgolfiers did not know the heat from the fire was causing the hot air balloon to ascend.

Who was the first to fly in a hot air balloon?

The first passengers to fly in a hot air balloon were a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. The hot air balloon lifted them over 1000ft and slowly descended to the ground. The first people to fly in a balloon were Pilatre De Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes. They spent 25 minutes in the sky in the hot air balloon and crossed over Paris.

Chemistry and physics teachers find ballooning fascinating?

Want a hot a hot air balloon historian and active balloon pilot to chat with your class about hot air balloons. the first hot air balloon flight, and interesting gas ballooning history? We have multiple pilots at Seattle Ballooning that would be happy to Zoom with your class. Who knows, maybe we’ll inspire some new Aeronauts!

History of ballooning seattle
History of hot air ballooning
Hot Air Balloon Pilot Eliav C.
About the Author

Chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning. I get the opportunity to provide luxury hot air balloon rides just South of Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier. When you do what you love, it’s not considered work.

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