Launching the Balloon Era

Posted on Fri, January 6, 2017

The balloon was a product of the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. Early modern experimenters like the Englishman Robert Boyle, studied the physics of the atmosphere. By the 18th century the focus shifted to the discovery of the constituent gases that make up the atmosphere. Early plans for flying machines inspired by the new discoveries were impractical, but quickly gave way to the first real balloons.

Off-white colored engraving of a ship-like flying machine.

In 1670, Francesco Lana de Terzi (1631-1687), inspired by recent discoveries in the physics of gases, suggested constructing a flying machine featuring four metal globes that would be evacuated of air and thus, perhaps, light enough to make the craft buoyant. The craft was never constructed and was beyond the technology of the period. This image appeared as an illustration in a 1789 issue of The European Magazine. Engraving, English, 1789

Etching of a ship-like flying machine.

This is a fanciful flying ship proposed by the Brazilian Jesuit Bartolomeu de Gusmão (1685–1724). Gusmão is said to have flown a small balloon before the Portuguese court in Lisbon’s Casa da India on August 8, 1709. Etching from a publication, English, 18th century

Humankind first took to the sky using the principle of buoyancy. As the Greek philosopher Archimedes explained, when an object weighs less than the amount of fluid it displaces, it will rise until it reaches an equilibrium point. A balloon can become buoyant when filled with hot air or a gas that is lighter than air, such as hydrogen. While small hot air balloons were flown centuries ago in Asia, and a small balloon may have been flown in Lisbon as early as 1704, the first people did not venture aloft until the fall and winter of 1783.

The brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740–1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745–1799), papermakers from Annonay, France, launched the era of spectacular hot air balloon flights. On June 4, 1783, the Montgolfier’s sent a small hot air balloon aloft from the public square of their hometown of Annonay, France. News of the flight spread slowly across France, generating curiosity and excitement. 

Etching of two men.

This uncolored etching depicts the profiles of the Montgolfier brothers based on a commemorative medal.  


Watercolor-like scene of a balloon over a village.

This aquatint, a print meant to resemble a watercolor painting, depicts a hot air balloon ascending over a village. Aquatint, Possibly French, 18th century

Inspired by reports of the Montgolfier flight, Parisians commissioned chemical experimenter Jacques Alexandre César Charles (1746–1823) to provide a balloon demonstration for the capital. Charles filled his balloon with the lightweight hydrogen, rather than hot air. He sent his first small gas balloon aloft from the Champ de Mars on August 27, 1783. In the below hand-colored etching you can see a chest in the foreground. The chest contained dilute sulfuric acid and metal filings used to generate hydrogen to fill the balloon. 

Charles’ balloon landed in the village of Gonesse that afternoon, some 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the launch point. It was attacked by local peasants who assumed it was a demon that had fallen from the sky.

  • Crowd gathers to watch balloon launch.

    This etching shows crowds gathered in Paris to watch the takeoff of Alexandre César Charles’ balloon. A chest shown in the foreground contained dilute sulfuric acid and metal filings used to generate hydrogen to fill the balloon. Note that the title of the print is shown backward. The print was designed to be viewed through a Zograscope, an 18th century instrument involving a magnifier and a mirror that provided the viewer of the image with a sense of depth. When viewed with a Zograscope, the title of the print is in the appropriate orientation. Hand-colored etching, French, 1783

  • Image of balloon launch on a circular snuffbox

    A ballooning scene is painted on this ivory snuffbox, a box made to hold fine-ground tobacco. The image represents the launch of the first small gas balloon from the Champ de Mars, August 27, 1783. A small applauding crowd is gathered, and two men are shaking hands. The hydrogen generating barrels are shown. Ivory Snuffbox, English, 19th century

  • Profile of balloonist.

    An uncolored engraving of Jacques Charles in profile. Notice the balloon in the background and at the bottom an eagle holding a flag. Engraving, French, 1783

  • Locals attack a grounded balloon.

    This colored etching shows the first small hydrogen balloon being attacked by locals. Hand-colored etching, French, 1783