Balloon Race to the Sky

Balloon: Race to the Sky

Since time began, man yearned to take to the sky, like a bird in flight. Throughout early history, many schemes were tried, and as many failed. In 1782, however, the concept of a balloon was developed and ultimately proven. Throughout the decades that followed, the dream of flying through the sky became a reality, through the efforts of a group of daring men of science and vision. These are their stories.

Montgolfier Brothers

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, brothers, were the owners of an extensive paper manufacturing plant at Annonay in Avignon. In addition to their business, the pair shared an intense interest in navigating the sky. In 1782, after watching clouds, smoke and other vapours rise and float through the air, the brothers came up with the idea of inflating a large paper vessel with heated air. Their experiment worked, and they successfully launched their device in November 1782. After making improvements to their design, the Montgolfier brothers constructed a globe of linen and paper in June the following year as part of another trial. When finished, the new balloon measured 105 feet in circumference and was filled with inflammable air, otherwise known as hydrogen. Amazed spectators watched as their balloon rose in the air to a height said to be beyond calculation.

The event made international news. The race to the sky had begun.


By 19 September 1783, the Montgolfier inventors had fine tuned their Aerostatic Machine and performed their next experiment in front of spectators in the first court of the Palace in Versailles at the invitation of the King of France. They placed a sheep, a duck, a cock and a barometer in a basket tethered to the balloon which then rose to about 1200 feet in the sky. The machine drifted in a westerly direction before slowly descending and landing in the forest near Carefour-Marechal. On reaching the downed machine, spectators found the sheep feeding quietly and the duck and cock equally unharmed. The barometer, although overturned, was intact.

Reassured by the survival of the animals, the Montgolfier brothers proposed a more daring experiment. The following month, a volunteer by the name of Pilatre de Rosier along with another intrepid soul, the Marquis d’Arlandes, an officer in the French Guards, became the first two human passengers to travel in a balloon on 15 October 1783. In the presence of the King, the two passengers rode in a balloon that rose from the yard of the Palace of La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne, reaching a height of about 3000 feet before descending over a period of 25 minutes to a location five miles distant.

Economic Collapse

Amid the financial collapse in France during this period and the failure of the Caisse d’escompte bank, the newspapers in Great Britain quipped:

The French were occupied in Star gazing Pursuits; their Curiousity being engrossed by the Invention of Air Balloons when Prudence required an Attention to their property.

But despite the harsh criticism in the press, it wasn’t long before Great Britain caught Balloon Fever and Ireland, Scotland and England all joined in the race to the sky.

Mr Rousseau

The first ascent in a balloon in Great Britain appears to have taken place in Navan, County Meath, Ireland. Reported in Saunders’s Newsletter on 26 April 1784, an extract from a letter from Navan dated 18 April told of the successful experiment. Mr Rosseau and a ten-year-old drummer boy climbed into the gallery of a hot air balloon 19 feet in diameter. The balloon was made of white taffeta and was glazed inside with an elastic gum. The gallery was composed of willow branches and was fixed to the net that covered the balloon. At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the cord was cut, and the balloon rose into the air, much to the astonishment of the gathered crowd. After 39 minutes of progress, the balloon was no longer visible, but the crowd could still hear the drummer boy faithfully beating the grenadier’s march for another fifteen minutes. At four o’clock that afternoon the balloon descended to the ground in a field near the town of Ratoath. The pair of aeronauts were unharmed, except for a small bruise on the forehead of the drummer boy received when he jumped clear of the gallery.

James Tytler

Despite the documented Rousseau ascent, James Tytler is often credited with being the first man to ascend in a hot air balloon in Great Britain. Four months after the Rousseau flight, on 14 August 1784, Tytler first tried to launch his Fire Balloon from Comely Gardens in Edinburgh in front of a large group of spectators. Just as it was filled, and he was about to take his seat in the basket, he was forced to abort the attempt when the balloon failed to hold air. The crowd, frustrated, seized the basket and carried it through the streets, finally setting it on fire and burning it to ashes.

Tytler realized that his first attempt met with failure because of the linen he used for his balloon. The porousness of the cloth allowed air to escape. He devised a plan to coat the fabric with varnish and constructed a new basket to replace the one destroyed by the crowds. On 27 August 1784, in an unpublicized event, James Tytler succeeded in his first aerial flight. After the balloon was filled at Comely Gardens, Tytler took his place in the basket and they cut the ropes. He ascended rapidly and after reaching a good height, he descended again on the road to Restalrig about half a mile from where he launched.

Tytler’s Fire Balloon was a cylindrical shape, about 40 feet in diameter with a circumference of 126 feet. The interior held 50,400 cubic feet of air and the whole device would weigh about 1200 pounds once two passengers boarded. The apparatus would rise by rarifying the air in the balloon by the heat from a furnace suspended from the balloon. This method seemed preferable to using inflammable gas, a method now being tried in France, since the balloon could stay aloft until they depleted the fuel.

Because his first flight had been made with few witnesses, Tytler made another experiment, this time inviting local dignitaries to witness the balloon launch. It was Tytler’s intent to collect subscriptions from those gathered to fund his further experiments with the Fire Balloon. On 1 September between one and two in the afternoon, Tytler’s balloon was inflated. At half-past two, Tytler took a seat in the basket and they set the balloon afloat. He ascended gradually over the house at Comely Gardens and then descended again to the delight of the onlookers.

Despite his initial success with his Fire Balloon, James Tytler was a bit of a social outcast and was often in financial difficulty. It is likely he funded his forays into aeronautics with savings from his work as the editor of the second edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The race to the sky was an expensive one however and faced with bankruptcy and the failure of his marriage, Tytler soon returned to his career as an editor, working on the third edition of the Encyclopedia from 1788 to 1793. He died in Salem, Massachusetts in 1904, drowning in the ocean after leaving his home in a drunken state.

Vincent Lunardi

Toward the end of 1783, experiments with simple hot air balloons gave way to balloons filled with other gases. A crowd of 150,000 gathered near the Artillery Ground in Moorfields on 15 September 1784 to watch Lunardi’s aerial voyage in what he called an Aerostatic Machine. People in the neighbourhood where the launch would take place covered their homes in scaffolding and profited greatly by selling tickets to those wanting to watch the spectacle from a better vantage point.

After Lunardi’s 33-foot balloon, filled with hydrogen, zinc, oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) and steel shavings, launched from the Artillery Ground, it travelled over Highgate and Barnet. There, the machine descended briefly, but ascended again when Lunardi threw off some ballast. After a time, the balloon reached a great height and the air became quite cold, freezing into icicles on his clothing. Lunardi fortified himself with some brandy he had brought along for the purpose. He later estimated that he had been about three and a half miles in the air, most likely an exaggeration since he never recounted having difficulty with breathing.

Vincent Lunardi flew his balloon for one hour and forty minutes that day, travelling 40 miles before deciding he must land as night began to fall. Lunardi threw out a grappling iron, hooking a tree in a field near Collier’s Hill a few miles from Ware. Two men who were in the field ran in fright, but a woman stood her ground and helped him to secure the balloon. Afterwards he was taken by carriage into Ware where he was feted for his accomplishment.

Blanchard and Jeffries

After many more successful ascents throughout the country, achieving flights of longer duration and distance became the new goals. It was with this in mind that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jefferies set off from the castle at Dover at thirteen minutes past one o’clock on the afternoon of 7 January 1785. With them, they carried nine bags of ballast, a compass, a bottle of brandy, a few biscuits, two cork jackets and various sundry equipment. From the basket flew two silken flags, one English and one French, and in their possession were a number of letters from English dignitaries addressed to several of the French nobility. Their goal was to cross the English Channel. The balloon rose, and then appeared almost to touch the sea before rising again. Finally, it was seen to soar above the cliffs on the French coast before it disappeared from sight.

Jeffries and Blanchard descended at a point between Calais and Boulogne. They had successfully crossed the English Channel.

Sadler’s Balloon

Rosier and Romain

On 15 June 1785, M. Pilatre de Rosier and M. Romain attempted to combine a balloon of hydrogen gas with a hot-air balloon. Their apparatus consisted of a 37-foot globe filled with inflammable air under which a 10-foot Montgolfier or fire balloon was attached. During the course of the flight, it was thought that the sides of the fire balloon were pressed inwards toward the flame by a strong gust of wind. The entire vessel then exploded in the air and Rosier and Romain became victims of the first fatal accident since the discovery of the balloon. Pilatre de Rosier had planned to be married to Miss Dyer of Yorkshire on his arrival in England before the cruel catastrophe occurred.

Up, Up and Away

By September 1874, there were so many air balloons being launched nightly in London that a complaint was taken to the Mayor about the danger they posed. In fact, it was not unusual for balloons to catch fire and descend rapidly, setting on fire whatever they landed on. On 6 September that year, one Air Balloon caught fire, falling in a field at Whitton near Twickenham belonging to Mr Haughton, a butcher in Bear-binder lane. The balloon set the stable on fire and threatened his corn stacks. Luckily his neighbours were able to extinguish the flames before they could do too much damage.

Balloons filled with air, hydrogen, helium and other gases would go on to be used by the military, scientists and adventurers. Surprisingly, the design of the hot air balloon has changed little since the time of Montgolfier and Tytler. Those early pioneers would no doubt be amazed to see the magical sight of a group of hot air balloons lifting off a misty field in dawn’s early light more than two centuries in the future.

Aeronautic Timeline

November 1782 – Montgolfier brothers achieve the first flight of a balloon.

September 1783 – Montgolfier brothers send a sheep, a duck and a cock aloft in a balloon.

October 1783 – Rosier becomes the first man to go aloft in a balloon.

February 1784 – Italy joined the balloon race when Cavalier Don Paolo Andreani and two mechanic brothers named Gerli ascended at Milan, Italy on 25 February.

April 1784 – The first flight in Great Britain was made in Navan, County Meath, Ireland by Mr. Rousseau.

June 1784 – Madame Thible became the first woman aeronaut when she ascended in one of the Montgolfier Fire Balloons at Lyons. Her ascent was witnessed by King Gustavus of Sweden.

July 1784 – The first aerial ascent in Germany was made at Vienna by Herr Siuver and three others when they crossed the Danube.

August 1784 – James Tytler makes history with his ascent in a hot air balloon in Edinburgh.

September 1784 – Vincent Lunardi launched a hydrogen balloon from the Artillery Ground in Moorfields, remaining aloft for one hour and forty minutes, travelling 40 miles as a crowd of 150,000 people watched.

October 1784 – Mr. Sadler, the first Englishman to navigate the air, made an ascent from Oxford.

January 1785 – Blanchard and Jeffries successfully cross the English Channel, travelling from Dover to Calais in a balloon.

June 1785 – Rosier and Romain became victims of the first fatal balloon accident.

August 1787 – A dog with a parachute was launched from a balloon at elevation by Blanchard at Strasbourg and landed unhurt.

September 1906 – The first balloon race takes place in Paris France.

May 1931 – The first manned balloon flight to the stratosphere.

November 1981 – The Double Eagle V piloted by Abruzzo, Newman, Clark and Aoki crosses the Pacific Ocean.

September 1984 – Joe Kittinger becomes the first man to cross the Atlantic in a solo balloon flight.