The Dawn of Aviation ~ Hot-Air Balloons by Heather King


I’d like to welcome Heather King today as she related her most recent trip down the research rabbit hole. Who knew one could find hot air balloons down there!


When I start a new novel or even a blog post, I am prone to falling down research rabbit holes in the pursuit of historical fact. The latest diversion was the fascinating subject of early flight. I needed to know everything, from the materials used and methods of proofing to the heights and distances achieved. It was a warren of massive proportions.

The first balloons were only filled with hot air initially. Although smoke was used in early experiments to inflate the balloons, it was soon discovered that they would descend rapidly once the air was used up. Experiments were carried out with small balloons made of ‘gold-beater’s skin’ and sealed with gum arabic. This was filled from a jar or some form of bladder and then tied with a thread. Through the experiments of Henry Cavendish (published as early as 1766), it was discovered that ‘inflammable air’, known to us as hydrogen gas, was lighter than air. It was also found to be easier to replenish.

The advent of Inflammable air

Hydrogen was created by the action of water and sulphuric acid on iron and zinc shavings. Sulphuric acid must be diluted with five to six parts water. Iron can produce 1700 times its own bulk in gas. Therefore, one cubic foot of ‘inflammable air’ can be produced from 4½ ounces iron, 4½ ounces sulphuric acid and 22½ ounces water. Chippings of large pieces of iron, e.g. cannon, work better than filings, since there is less heat and the diluted acid passes through more easily. Thus produced, the gas was then fed into a cask (open at the base) immersed in a copper of water and pumped into the suspended balloon.

In June 1782, a paper was read at the Royal Society, detailing the experiments of Tiberius Cavallo, who was the first to attempt to elevate a hydrogen-filled balloon into the air. Bladders from animals and fish failed, as did the attempt to make light and durable globes by pumping gas into dense solutions of oil, varnish or gum. Only soap bubbles filled with gas were successful.

Frenchman Jacques Charles had made a considerable study of gases. In August 1783, he designed a balloon which was then made by the Robert brothers. It was created from strips of silk, stitched together and then varnished with a solution of turpentine in which rubber had been dissolved. They used alternate strips of red and white, but the solution discoloured the white silk to yellow. The balloon was approximately 13 feet in diameter (35 cubic metres) and able to lift almost 20 pounds (nine kilos). It flew north for three-quarters of an hour before landing 25 kilometres (just over 15½ miles) away.

Pioneers of Balloon Flight

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, are considered the pioneers of balloon flight. On 15 June 1783, they produced a cloth sphere lined with paper and inflated it with smoke. It then rose into the air and travelled more than 7,000 feet, to the astonishment of their audience at Annonay. One of the brothers* had already made an experiment using ‘rarefied air’ in November 1782. He used a bag of fine silk, in the shape of a parallelopipedon, open on one side, the capacity of which was equal to about 40 cubic feet. Burning paper, applied to its aperture, served to rarefy the air, or to form the cloud; and, when sufficiently expanded, the machine ascended rapidly to the ceiling of the room, to quote Colin Mackenzie.

*Colin Mackenzie suggests this was ‘Stephen, the elder brother’, but in actual fact, Joseph was the elder by five years. Since Mr. Mackenzie also names the second brother John, it demonstrates why it is so important to double and even triple check facts.

The success of this venture precipitated enormous excitement in Paris. A subscription was raised, with various persons of rank keen to be involved. The Robert brothers were commissioned to construct a hydrogen balloon and Jacques Charles was appointed director of proceedings. A bag, measuring about 13 feet in diameter, was constructed of lutestring and varnished with a solution of ‘dissolved elastic gum’. It had one opening, at the neck, and including the stop-cock, weighed 25 pounds before inflation. It rose 100 feet on a cord on 26 August 1783. The following afternoon, it was released and in two minutes rose over 3,000 feet above the Champs de Mars. It remained aloft for 45 minutes and landed in the village of Gonesse, about 15 miles away. The villagers, alarmed by this alien monster, are said to have attacked it with pitchforks.

Following this success, the Academy of Sciences invited the Montgolfier brothers to build a large balloon to be inflated with hydrogen. This was displayed before their Majesties and a large audience at Versailles on 18 September and was the first ‘passenger’ flight. The balloon, called Aerostat Réveillon, was sent aloft, to the delight of the assembled, with a sheep, a duck and a cockerel in a basket. The craft rose a little over 1,400 feet and travelled just over 10,000 feet in eight minutes. When it landed, the occupants of the basket were none the worse for the experience.

A Scramble into the Skies

After this, there was a scramble to launch man into the skies. Monsieur Jean-Francois Pilâtres des Roziers publicly – and courageously – declared himself willing to be a guinea-pig. On 15 October 1783, he rose in a tethered, oval balloon roughly 74 feet high and 48 feet in diameter. The balloon lifted as far as the eighty foot ropes permitted and stayed there for about four minutes. Four days later, before a crowd of 2,000 people, he ascended to a height of 200 feet for six minutes. In a second ascension the same day, he stayed up for 8½ minutes by having a fire under the balloon. Then, on 21 October 1783, he and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free aeronautic voyage from the gardens of La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne, near Paris, in a Montgolfier brothers’ balloon. Rising to 250 feet, and carried by the wind, they flew over Paris. The flight was controllable through a smoky fire in an iron basket beneath the balloon, but embers threatened to burn it, forcing them to descend before their fuel supply was used up. In recognition of their work in the development of aeronautics, this type of balloon was called Montgolfière after the brothers.

The first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon was made before thousands of onlookers a few days after Roziers and Arlandes, by Professor Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert, from the Jardins des Tuilleries in Paris on 1 December 1783. Covered by a net, supported by a hoop around its centre, the balloon was in the shape of a globe 27 feet in diameter. Accompanied by M. de Richelieu and three other celebrated French noblemen, it was taken to the launch site. The balloon was fitted with a cord-operated valve at the top to control the pressure and a boat was suspended from the hoop. With them in this vessel, the two gentlemen carried philosophical instruments, sand ballast, clothing and provisions. Having ascended, after remaining stationary for a while, they travelled horizontally, crossing the Seine and passing above towns and villages. The voyage lasted for 1 hour, 45 minutes and they finally descended at Nesle, 27 miles from Paris, a rate of fifteen miles per hour, ‘without feeling the least inconvenience’.

Following a second ascension alone, Professor Charles rose swiftly to over 9,800 feet. Feeling aching pain in his ears, he opened the valve and descended again about two miles away. He did not fly again, but a balloon employing hydrogen for ascension became known as a Charlière.

Tragedy struck Jean-Francois Pilâtres des Roziers and his brother Romain on 15 June 1785. In a double balloon, they attempted to fly across the English Channel from Boulogne. The gas caught fire and engulfed the balloon, which crashed to earth. Both men died and a memorial was erected on the spot where they fell, near Wimereux (between Boulogne and Calais). There were many such accidents, caused by insufficient preparation, adverse weather conditions and unforeseen events. The Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon lost gas because the pieces of the cover were held together with buttons and button holes.

Ballooning in the UK

While much of the early ballooning experimentation occurred on the Continent, particularly in France, it was not exclusively so. In the United Kingdom, interest was growing in the science, with several gentlemen of the aristocracy sinking large sums into the development of balloon technology. Some even bankrupted themselves. The foremost British aeronaut, James Sadler, was a pastry cook from Oxford. He had no education, was self-taught and developed his fascination for ballooning behind the family shop, The Lemon Hall Refreshment House. To fund his experiments, he put his balloons on display and charged the public to view them. He became a celebrity and was feted everywhere. So famous did he become, in 1785 he went to Cheltenham to perform a balloon flight and the whole town closed. He was invited to perform a balloon ascension in Hyde Park for the Peace Celebrations in 1814.

The first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon in England was made by Vincent Lunardi on 15 September 1784. The balloon had alternate red and blue stripes, a single valve at the neck and a ‘gallery’ with oars suspended below. Ascending from the Artillery Ground in London, he flew 24 miles and landed in Hertfordshire. His assistant, George Biggin and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage accompanied him during the ascension, but the balloon did not have enough power to carry all three, so Lunardi made the flight with a dog, a cat and a pigeon.

Not far behind Signor Lunardi, James Sadler’s first manned flight took place on 4th October 1784, at 5.30 in the morning, from Merton Gardens, Oxford. The balloon was blown towards Woodeaton, six miles away, and landed safely having reached a height of 3,600 feet. The event was recorded in The Oxford Journal at the time. James Sadler was the first to use coal gas and he also created hydrogen from neat sulphuric acid combined with iron and zinc filings, only he captured it in a quilt rather than by the method described above. Not only that, he was the first to create an adjustable fire to control the altitude of a balloon.

The next great challenge for the intrepid aeronauts separated the British Isles from the Continent. The shortest distance across the English Channel is 21 miles, between Dover and Calais. The first to succeed was Jean-Pierre Blanchard (with American doctor John Jeffries) on 7 January 1785. The flight was not without incident; the pair almost capsized into the sea and narrowly salvaged the adventure by throwing everything out of the basket and even removing clothing. Luckily, the balloon ascended again in the nick of time. The wind then lifted, changed direction and carried the machine over the forest of Guines. By seizing a branch of a tree, Dr. Jeffries managed to halt their progress; they released the gas from the balloon and safely landed. This considerable feat won for Blanchard the freedom of Calais and an annual pension of 1,200 livres from the King. The Queen of France, who was at play, placed some coin on a card and then presented him with the winnings. The balloon was bought by the municipality of Calais and kept as a memorial; later a monument of marble was placed on the site where it landed.

So, next time you board a jumbo jet en route to a foreign holiday, spare a thought for the intrepid gentlemen who made it possible.



 Davies, Mark. King of all balloons: the adventurous life of James Sadler, the first English aeronaut. Stroud: Amberley, 2015.

Daview, Mark. “James Sadler – the first English aeronaut.” Speech, Ballooning, Preston Road Community Centre, Abingdon, November 21, 2012.

Mackenzie, Colin. One thousand experiments in chemistry: with illustrations of natural phenomena ; and practical observations on the manufacturing and chemical processes at present pursued in the successful cultivation of the useful arts. London: Printed for Sir R. Phillips and Co., 1822.

Marion, Fulgence. Wonderful balloon ascents, or, The conquest of the skies: a history of balloons and balloon voyages. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1870.

Serck, Linda. “James Sadler: The Oxford balloon man history forgot.” BBC News. July 12, 2014. Accessed October 03, 2017.

A confessed romantic and bookworm, Heather King has always made up stories. Discovering Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels began a lifelong love of the era, although she enjoys well-written books from other times too. Heather’s stories are traditional romps – light-hearted and witty, with bags of emotion. You walk with her characters through the world they inhabit. She also writes Paranormal Shape Shifter romance.

Visiting her Dark Side as Vandalia Black, she wrote Vampires Don’t Drink Coffee and Other Stories which includes a novella set during the English Civil War.

When not looking after her two hairy ponies, three cats and boisterous Staffie X, or frowning over keypad or notebook, she likes nothing better than taking long walks and curling up with a good book.

You can find Heather at:

BlogWebsite~ FacebookGoodreads~ Twitter

About her latest book: The Missing Duke

When his father dies, Lord Adam Bateman refuses to succeed to the dukedom which rightly belongs to his missing elder brother. Whilst performing secret and sensitive missions for the Duke of Wellington, he continues his efforts to find his twin. The search has become Adam’s all-consuming passion, leaving no time for affairs of the heart.

Miss Lucy Mercier is also seeking answers. Her father, a tailor, had been used to make hot air balloons for various noble patrons, including Lord Adam’s sire. Believing the deceased Duke of Wardley had been involved in her papa’s failure to return from the Continent, she takes employment in Lord Adam’s household in order to discover the truth. Then she accompanies him on an important commission for the Allied Army, and finds herself having to guard against a growing attraction for a man she knows she can never have.

Are the two disappearances connected and will two heads prove better than one in the pursuit of answers? Will Adam and Lucy find true happiness together or will the past – and their different stations – rise to keep them apart?


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    • Teresa Broderick on October 21, 2017 at 10:29 am
    • Reply

    Very interesting post. I’ve just read Frederica by Georgette Heyer and there was a balloon demonstration in it.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. Kind of amazing to think they had balloons back then.

    • J. W. Garrett on October 21, 2017 at 3:33 pm
    • Reply

    We take so many things for granted and forget the road traveled to get us where we are. Wow! That was a very informative and fascinating post. Thanks.

    1. We really, do, JW. It’s easy to forget convenient and relatively inexpensive travel are pretty new on the landscape.

    • JerryT on October 21, 2017 at 7:34 pm
    • Reply

    As a hot air balloon pilot who has an interest in ballooning I found this blog entry very interesting indeed.

    1. Thanks, Jerry!

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