The new film The Aeronauts truly captures the excitement of ballooning in the 19th century, even if it makes a few historical errors along the way. Ballooning expert Tom Paone explores the history behind the film.
The flight of the Double Eagle II balloon came to a safe and successful end in a wheat field near Miserey, France, about sixty miles northwest of Paris, on August 17, 1978. The event closed a chapter in the history of flight that had begun when the first human beings ventured aloft in 1783. At long last, the crew of Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman, all of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The success of the Double Eagle II, after so many others had failed, was not simply a matter of luck. It can be attributed to a combination of twentieth-century technology, better understanding of weather patterns, and the skill and experience of a crew who achieved one of the oldest goals in flying.
In 1785, a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and an American, Dr. John Jeffries, traveled by balloon across the English Channel, conducting the first significant and symbolic flight traversing a geographic obstacle by air. Afterward, crossing the oceans and circumnavigating the globe became the next barriers to be overcome.
From its inception the balloon’s potential military applications were apparent. They were used for observation by the Revolutionary Armies of France in 1784 at the Battles of Fleurus and Charleroi. For the next century and a half (or 150 years) militaries used the balloon to varying degrees of success.
Lighter-than-air flight grew out of the scientific revolution. Studies of atmospheric physics during the 17th century culminated in Robert Boyle’s description of the relationship between volume, temperature, and pressure and inspired lighter-than-air flight.
Chemists in the 18th century began identifying the gases in our atmosphere. Once hydrogen was isolated, the idea of filling a bag with this light gas followed naturally. The inventors of the balloon based their work on the scientific method, a new concept.
Human beings first took to the sky in balloons. Jacques and Etienne Montgolfier, two paper makers from Annonay, France, designed and built a hot air balloon that carried the first passengers aloft on November 21, 1783. Days later, the chemist Jacques Charles and a companion, Nicolas-Louis Robert, flew in a hydrogen balloon from the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The techniques and technologies of ballooning discovered in the 18th century remain the guiding principles of lighter-than-air flight today.
Among the treasures found within the special collections of the DeWitt Clinton Ramsey Room, a branch of the Smithsonian Libraries located at the National Air and Space Museum, is a collection of oversized scrapbooks with an interesting and complicated history. Originally bound in one volume, William Upcott’s Scrapbook of Early Aeronautica captures the history of lighter-than-air aircraft and aeronautics from 1783 to the 1840s through a rich collection of newspaper clippings, articles, illustrations, and letters.
Visitors to our Innovations in Flight Family Day and Outdoor Aviation Display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on June 18, are in for a real treat. In addition to the wide variety of aircraft that will fly in for the event and the other special programs planned, Andrew Richardson, the owner of Adams Balloons LLC of Albuquerque, New Mexico, will be making tethered flights with a new Smithsonian hot air balloon, weather permitting. Realizing that we have a beautiful example of a classic Adams wicker balloon basket on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Richardson asked if we would accept a modern hot air balloon envelope sporting the Smithsonian logo and colors into the collection. While the Museum has a world-class collection of balloon baskets and gondolas, we did not, in fact, have an envelope. Anxious to fill that gap, we quickly accepted Richardson’s generous offer.
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