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> A history of a balloon Issue: 2003-1 Section: Science



The idea of using balloons for aviation dates back to the XII century when Roger Bacon formulated a thought of exploiting thin-sides copper balls full of fire or air. However, that construction would never soar upwards. In order to get the balloon flying it had to be very light and had to be filled up with gas of density lower than the density of surrounding air.

Hydrogen, discovered in 1766 by Henry Cavendish, was gas a adequate to deal with this problem. Soap bubbles filled with hydrogen hovered quickly into the air because hydrogen is significantly lighter than air. In order to build the balloon they had to find a material for the cover, both satisfactory and strong. But none of the fabric known at that time was enough tight to protect getting the hydrogen out and there was no way to supply the losses of it.

According to a legend the French paper producers, the Montgolfier brothers, hit upon the idea when observing a shirt hanging above a fireplace, which swelled up and was carried off by warm air belched out from the hearth.

In September 1783, when they were burning charcoal under the open balloon’s cover, they filled it up with hot air. Then they put a sheep, a duck and a cock in a basket attached to the balloon and released it.

The flight, observed by king Ludwik XVI himself, lasted eight minutes. The animals tolerated it succesfully so it was decided that a man would fly the next time. The choice fell upon the king’s historian Jean Piltre de Rozier. On 15 October 1783 he rose up into the air at a height of 25 metres in a balloon with hot air, attached to the ground. The first free man’s flight in a balloon took place on 21 November 1783. De Rozier and marquis d’Arlandes flew over Paris in the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon. Within 25 minutes they crossed a distance of eight kilometers and reached a height of 91 metres.

While the Montgolfier brothers were concentrating on improving the balloon with hot air, others were experimenting on hydrogen. When the news about the new invention reached the Academy of Sciences in Paris, the teaching staff commanded professor Charles, a young outstanding physics teacher to study the problem. Unfortunately the scientist did not check the data precisely and concluded from incomplete information, that the Montgolfiers had filled their balloon with hydrogen – the only known gas that was considered to be much lighter than air. Being convinced of copying the Montgolfiers’ work, he performed an experiment with a hydrogen balloon. Within two hours J. Charles and M. N. Robert crossed the distance of 43 kilometres from Paris to the little town Neles nearby. The succes of those first tests began started a real balloon madness.

In this way Charles came up unconsciously with the invention of a new type of a balloon. Both kinds of balloons , called “Montgolfiers” and “Charliers” after the names of their inventors, competed until the beginning of the 19th century, when the Montgolfiers’ method was stopped. So contemporary balloons derive from “Charliers” in which flammable hydrogen was replaced with non-flammable helium.

Following France, people in other countries started to use balloons, for instsance in Poland, where in 1784 many tests took place in Warsaw, Lvov, Cracow, Kamieniec Podolski, Puławy, Pińczów.

Although balloons were a failure disappointed as a mean of air transport, because they were at the mercy of winds they quickly found application in the military field. In 1794 the French army used observational balloons and during both World Wars were used spread barrage balloons; between them a metal net as a trap that made military operations difficult for enemy aircrafts. For example the English made over 200 German V-1 rockets powerless in this way. From the beginning balloons were used for scientific research, making flights at a height of many kilometres.

Since the end of 19th century meteorological balloons have been sent up regularly – with time automatic apparatus doing measurement and recording data replaced a crew. In 1931 Auguste Piccard, a Swiss scientist built the first balloon able to flight into the stratosphere (the highest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere) and it reached a height of almost 16 kilometres in it. Further flights to the stratosphere resulted in the present record, numbering 34 668 metres. It was set by M.D.Ross, American in 1961.


Ballooning became also a beautiful sport for brave people. The Poles achieved many successes in it before the last World War. In our times a balloon has wandered even to the Earth’s orbit. “Echo” an American artificial satellite, that was used in succesful experiments in communication for large distance, was actually a balloon whose folded cover together with a gas cylinder was carried up by a rocket at 400 kilometres where it was automatically filled up. It is worth to add that in the orbit “Echo” did not act like a balloon but like an artificial satellite – it was rotating thanks to adequate initial speed, given by the rocket.



  • „The great Book of Inventions”, published by “Nasza Księgarnia”
  • Great knowledge of my Grandfather.
  • Graphics from web resources.



Thanks are due to the teachers mgr Mirosława Jaruszewska and mgr Piotr Kozak for their support in consultation.