While hot air balloons might not be the most efficient form of air travel in the modern world, they are still used for entertainment and scientific purposes. Here’s a brief history of the most colorful flying machine ever made: the hot air balloon.

In the beginning

Group of people standing around paper lanterns, releasing numerous bright lamps into the sky
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Technically, the Chinese have been using hot air balloons for millennia. As far back as 220 B.C., Chinese military leaders would use floating lanterns to communicate during battle. The lanterns were made of paper with a small candle or torch suspended below to heat the air. While none of these could support cargo, they used the same “technology” as the hot air balloons that would later carry humans.

So, who was the genius who decided it’d be a good idea to ride around in a wicker basket propelled by fire? It was two French brothers named Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. They realized what the Chinese had already known for thousands of years and started to create their own flying paper lanterns. The more they showed off their flying machine, the larger it got.

Their show made it to Paris in 1783. Their largest balloon yet was made of paper and fueled by burning wool and straw. To really make the show stand out, they put a duck, sheep, and a rooster in the basket as passengers. The balloon floated along for eight minutes and landed safely about two miles away.

Passenger travel

Silhouette of group standing and filing in to a hot air balloon passenger basket
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With the many still abuzz about the successful flight of the farm animals, a French scientist named Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier decided to take the experiment one step further. He and one other passenger hopped into a balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers and took off on the first untethered manned flight in a hot air balloon on November 21, 1783.

The flight wasn’t without its complications. Initially, the balloon deflated and had to have some tears repaired, but they eventually were on their way. The balloon reached an altitude of 1,000 feet and traveled 5.5 miles in about 30 minutes before landing safely in a field.

Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier

Aerial view of passenger hot air balloons rising into the sky, with scattered clouds in background
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Being a scientist of some renown, Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier made some modifications to the initial hot air balloon design to make it work better. One of his brilliant ideas was to put some lighter-than-air gas in a separate pocket at the top of the balloon to help it float. This “inflammable air,” as he called it, was hydrogen.

After his successful first attempt at flying in a balloon, he decided to test his new model in the most daring way possible: he was going to cross the English Channel. Now that most people know what happens when you put hydrogen near an open flame, you can probably guess his results. In June of 1785, the balloon rose into the sky and, unsurprisingly, when something sparked the hydrogen, the bag caught fire and plummeted to the earth killing Jean-Francois and his passenger.

Milestones in ballooning

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Even though Jean-Francois may have crashed, the hopes and dreams of riding in a hot air balloon did not. Many others took to the skies to achieve milestones in balloon aviation.

  • 1785 – First successful crossing of the English Channel
  • 1793 – First hot air balloon in America
  • 1836 – First long-distance balloon flight from London to Germany
  • 1870 – Hot air balloons used for military surveillance
  • 1906 – Hot air ballooning as a sport
  • 1931 – First hot air balloon to reach the stratosphere
  • 1960 – First hot air balloon with a propane burner and the beginning of modern ballooning
  • 1970 – Synthetic materials make balloons stronger
  • 1987 – First transatlantic flight. Accomplished by famous businessman Richard Branson.
  • 1991 – First transpacific flight. Also accomplished by Richard Branson.
  • 1999 – First round the world flight
  • 2002 – Highest altitude reached in a balloon: 69,852 feet

Modern hot air balloons

Assorted colorful hot air balloons moving through the air in a pack, set against blue skies
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Ever since the creation of affordable and safe materials in the 1960s and 70s, ballooning has become a popular hobby for many people throughout the world. Today’s balloons are made of a flame resistant, lightweight, and cost-effective polyurethane coated nylon and are powered by propane burners. They’ve come a long way from paper balloons fueled by burning wool.

Today, there are more than 5,000 registered hot air balloon pilots in the United States alone. Many cities hold balloon rallies and events for amateur pilots, and there’s even a World Hot Air Balloon Championship that takes place every year.

High-tech gas balloons are still used by NASA for research purposes. They can reach the upper limits of the atmosphere to study both Earth and space for a fraction of the cost of a satellite.