Vintage Transportation | Hot Air Balloon
Apr 18, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve covered some of the more traditional modes of vintage transportation in past features, but today’s beautiful blue skies (and a nudge from our resident movie guru) have inspired me. Join me dear reader as we set our eyes to the heavens and explore a romantic way to cruise the friendly skies: the hot air balloon! When you think of flying your mind probably races to the intrepid Wright brothers or the daring Charles Lindbergh. But allow me to introduce two new names to consider: Joseph-Michel & Etienne Montgolfier. Another brotherly duo, they came from a long line of French paper manufacturers. One wouldn’t think this would be a natural foundation for a life of aviation, but Joseph’s extravagant imagination, when combined with Etienne’s formal training, made for a high-flying future. Joseph got the ball rolling by handcrafting parachutes, which he would use as he jumped off the roofs on the family estate! By 1783 what started as a rich eccentric flailing off rooftops became a full-fledged flight.
This record-setting moment came courtesy of a balloon called the Aerostat Reveillon, a beautifully decorated envelope made of alum-covered taffeta. With the French elite looking onward, a very brave duck, sheep, and a rooster rose to see the earth from new heights. Apparently King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette were in the crowd, underscoring the importance and pride taken in this event. This eight-minute flight buoyed the national spirit and the brothers became eager to improve upon their new-found technology.
Months later, this new-fangled device carried French scientist Jean-Franíçois Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes un-tethered to a dizzying height of 500 feet. The duo travelled about five and a half miles and were above ground for just under 30 minutes. Granted the straw fire system, used to power the balloon, eventually caused its demise – but by this point the public was captivated, the military intrigued, and the rich amused.
A couple years later, in 1785, de Rozier was back in the saddle (so to speak) in a daring mission across the English channel. This route was seen as the proving ground for long-distance flights. His thesis was that a combination of a hot air balloon and a hydrogen balloon would be the most prudent approach. Sadly two hours into the flight the balloons erupted in flames. Their legacy lived on as later in the year a French and American duo successfully completed the journey, based on de Rozier’s learnings. In 1793 the ballooning bug came stateside with a flight from Philadelphia to New Jersey. With President George Washington on-site for takeoff it became clear – great minds were seeing new possibilities amongst the clouds and shades of blue!
Hot air balloons would be leveraged to great effect during times of war to deliver messages and aid. With each passing year, scientists near and far continued perfecting the technology (even in light of the airplane’s debut in the early 1900s). In 1932 while most folks were swinging to the latest jazzy tunes, a Swiss scientific team set a new altitude record of over 52,000 feet in a pressurized chamber. Three years later and records were again broken for height – a fact that was celebrated with the first live broadcast from the hot air balloon itself! Given that we continue to see innovations in balloon travel, it’s pretty obvious that generations of dreamers aren’t done with this vintage mode of transportation. As recently as 1995 the first solo transpacific flight was completed.
We’re all familiar with the evolution of the car and society’s ongoing love affair with zooming along on the open road. That Route 66 dream is still going strong. But the quaint romance with hot air balloons is often overlooked. Considering this global obsession with a fast and furious pace (hint, hint: hyperloop), I personally think this makes the hot air balloon even more relevant. The idea of floating through the clouds at nature’s pace, seeing the world from a fresh perspective – it’s funny to think that both the ideas of getting somewhere quickly & lingering in the moment have had such an impact on how we transport ourselves to and fro. Tell me dear reader, which school of thought do you adore the most?