Invention of the hot air balloon

Since its invention in 1783, the hot air balloon has gone from decades of oblivion to renewed popularity.

Joseph and Étienne de Montgolfier invented the hot air balloon. After several successful tries, the two brothers decided to organize a public demonstration on June 4, 1783. Around 100 curious spectators were on hand. The 11-meter wide silk and paper balloon was inflated over a fire of straw and wool and rose to an altitude of about 180 meters. The balloon travelled two kilometers in ten minutes and made a soft landing.

On September 19, 1783, in the presence of Louis XVI and a huge crowd gathered in front of the Versailles palace, the Montgolfier brothers presented their most recent balloon. Made of coton and paper, the 12.5 by 17-meter balloon was elegantly painted.

Aboard the balloon, in a suspended cage, a rooster, a duck and a sheep became the first balloon passengers in history. The balloon rose to 500 meters and travelled three kilometers in eight minutes. The animals returned unharmed.

On November 21, 1783, Jean Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis of Arlandes, became the first humans to fly. The balloon had a volume of approximately 2,040 cubic meters, measured 21 meters in length and 14 meters in width, and weighed 725 kilograms with a full load. The envelope was made of an alun-soaked coton sheet to render it waterproof and less inflammable. The decorations represented the royal coat of arms and the signs of the Zodiac. As a huge crowd watched (500,000 or half the population of Paris according to estimates), the balloon rose majestically to an altitude of 900 meters and landed safely after a 25-minute, 8-kilometer flight.

Professors Charles and Robert also made a significant contribution to the discovery of the hot air balloon by introducing, at about the same time, the hydrogen balloon which could outdistance its hot air cousin. The first flight of a hydrogen balloon occurred on August 27, 1783.

In the 1950s, American Ed Yost rekindled the hot air balloon's popularity by experimenting new methods combining plastic materials with an industrial-type propane gas tank heating system. In the seventies, with help from a small, dedicated group of people, hot air balloons resurfaced for good. Manufacturers started producing balloons for a growing number of enthusiasts. Since then, hot air ballooning has become a very sophisticated sport. Local, regional, national and international competitions are held every year in more than 40 countries.

This text contains excerpts from Les vaisseaux du ciel, a book by Marco Majrani which is available at City of Gatineau offices.