Of all the experimental and intellectual developments in the 18th century, none captivated both scientists and the general public more than balloon travel. Ballooning played an important part in early aeronautical development, the limitless expanse of sky beckoning scientists with hopes of exploration, excitement, and inexhaustible possibility. The first trepidatious voyages were described in eager and precise detail, and often included maps and diagrams of scientific observations. Early etchings and engravings were also made to capture the discoveries and milestones made by the scientists, explorers, and daredevils who braved the air. Below are several of our ballooning prints, selected from both our Georgetown and New York galleries. Be sure to click on the links to see more for our inventory.
The first clearly recorded instance of a balloon carrying (human) passengers was built by the brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France. These brothers came from a family of paper manufacturers and had noticed ash rising in paper fires, which led to their experiments with balloon travel. The Montgolfier brothers gave their first public demonstration of their invention on June 4, 1783. They stood on a circular platform attached to the bottom of the balloon and hand-fed the fire through openings on either side of the balloon’s skirt. The balloon reached an altitude of at least 500 feet and traveled about 5½ miles before landing safely 25 minutes later. Later that year, scientists Jacques Alexander Charles and Nicholas Louis Robert created the first gas-balloon, utilizing hydrogen to keep the balloon and basket afloat for a significantly longer period of time. Within the next ten years, numerous daredevils risked the skies with the help of silk balloons, wicker baskets, and new concoctions of gas and flame.
By 1785, the first successful crossing of the English Channel was accomplished by French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries, using a gas balloon. They started in Dover, but once they were positioned over the water, the balloon lost altitude. The pair feverishly tossed all items from the basket, including their clothes. They landed safely in France two hours later, in nothing but their underwear.
Most of early balloon flight and exploration occurred in France, with backing provided by the Académie Royale des Sciences. England was slow to catch on to the ballooning phenomenon. The first manned balloon flight in England was by Signor Vincent Lunardi, an Italian, who ascended from Moorfields on September 15, 1784. His gas balloon was outfitted with wooden oars, with the intended purpose of directional control. Fueled by the fervor surrounding Lunardi’s first flight in London, ballooning finally became a veritable craze in England. Aeronauts became the some of the most talked about celebrities of the day, and tales of their exploits and adventures swept across Britain creating a national mania for the sport. Whereas ballooning had been popular on the Continent since Pilatre and Rozier’s first flight in a “Montgolfiere”, it was not until Lunardi’s daring flight that it gained popularity in England.
Nicknamed the “King of the Balloon”, James Sadler was considered the first English aeronaut. He made his first balloon ascent in 1784, the same years as Lunardi’s famous flight, flying from Oxford to the village of Woodeaton, six miles away. On October 7, 1811, he set a balloon speed record when he flew from Birmingham to Boston, Lincolnshire, in less than four hours. In 1812, he attempted to cross the Irish Sea, but failed, landing in the ocean near Anglesey where he was rescued by a passing fishing boat. Sadler is remembered as one of the pioneers of aeronautical exploration in Britain and his daring flights helped make ballooning a national pastime.
Charles Green was another celebrated English aeronaut, He was the first person to undertake an ascent in a balloon filled with carbureted hydrogen gas. Green made 526 ascents during the course of his daring career, many of which tested the boundaries of aeronautical aviation. An eccentric at heart, Green made an ascent off the back of his pony, a feat which won him a reputation as daredevil. He constructed the great Nassau balloon, in which he made his famous ascent from Vauxhall Gardens. In 1821, Green was the first aeronaut to demonstrate that coal-gas could be used to inflate balloons. Prior to this discovery, volatile hydrogen gas had been used which was extremely expensive and took up to two days to inflate a large balloon. Green also invented the guide-rope, which was used to regulate the ascent and descent of the balloon.
Ballooning became a significant part of popular culture. Spectators would gather to watch the balloons take off and land. Fashion houses drew inspiration from the lauded air explorers. The wealthy that could afford such luxuries would take trips in balloons. Once made maneuverable, balloons were even used by militaries. The first military use of a balloon occurred during the Battle of Fleures in 1784. The balloon L’Entrprenant was used by French Aerostatic Corps to watch the movements of the Coalition Army.