The Balloon Era to the birth of powered aviation
For the purposes of Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era, the “Balloon Era” is the time between 1783, the year of the first manned balloon flights, and the early twentieth century, when balloons were superseded by airplanes and airships as a means of air travel.
This timeline starts earlier, and it isn’t just about balloons. Important events in the development of airships and airplanes were also happening during these years. At the time, it wasn’t clear if air travel would ever become practical—and if so, what form it would take.
Third Century B.C.
Greek scientist Archimedes describes the principle of buoyancy, by which boats float (and by which balloons and airships rise).
Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci studies bird flight and sketches designs for (but does not build) flying machines, including a helicopter and a hang glider.
Francesco de Lana, an Italian Jesuit professor of science and mathematics, proposes an airship to be lifted by four copper spheres with all the air pumped out of them.
Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão demonstrates a small hot air balloon in Portugal. (Such toy balloons may have been in use in China years earlier.)
English scientist Henry Cavendish discovers a gas he calls “Phlogiston” or inflammable air. Today we call it hydrogen.
Working separately, Henry Cavendish and James Watt discover that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, and show how water could be decomposed to release hydrogen.
First manned balloon flights, Paris, France: two men go up in the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon, and J.A.C. Charles builds and pilots the first manned hydrogen balloon.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard of France and John Jeffries of the United States make first balloon crossing of the English Channel.
First air fatality. Pilâtre de Rozier is killed when his combination hydrogen/hot air balloon catches fire.
First balloon flight in the United States, by Jean-Pierre Blanchard in Philadelphia.
First military “air force” organized, the Aerostatic Corps of the Artillery Service, in France. Manned balloons are used for observation in a war against Austria and the Netherlands.
Jacques Garnerin makes the first public parachute descent in Paris, France.
English scientist George Cayley describes the principles of lift, drag, and thrust in an influential series of articles called On Aerial Navigation. During his career, Cayley made sketches of proposed gliders and helicopters.
French balloonist Sophie Blanchard is killed in Paris after shooting fireworks from her hydrogen balloon.
English balloonist Charles Green first uses “coal gas” (used for gaslights) to fill a balloon. It is cheaper than hydrogen and makes ballooning more affordable (and thus more common).
Charles Green sets a long-distance record with a 480-mile flight from England to Germany.
First mechanically-powered flight. Henri Giffard flies his steam-powered airship over Paris.
First pilot-controlled, heavier-than-air flight. Louis Charles Letur tests his parachute-glider in France.
The balloon Atlantic, piloted by John Wise and John La Mountain, makes an 800-mile nonstop flight from St. Louis to upstate New York.
Manned balloons are used for observation during the U.S. Civil War.
English balloonists Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher reach an altitude of more than 30,000 feet, without supplemental oxygen.
First air mail service, during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-German War. Balloonists carry letters and carrier pigeons out of the city; the pigeon carry microfilmed messages back in.
First out-and-back powered flight by the electric-powered airship La France.
First flight by a gasoline-powered airship, in Germany.
German engineer Otto Lilienthal, who made more than 2,000 experimental glider flights, is killed in a crash. News of his death inspires brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright to begin their own study of aviation.
Swedish balloonist Salomon Andree and two other men attempt to fly to the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon. Their bodies are discovered on an Arctic island in 1930.
The Wright brothers test their first experimental kite, in preparation for experiments with gliders.
Partly-successful test flights of Count Ferdinand Zeppelin’s LZ 1, the first airship to feature a rigid skeleton, in Germany.
Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont becomes an international celebrity by flying his airship around the Eiffel Tower and returning to his starting point within a time limit.
German balloonists ascend to 35,500 feet, breathing oxygen from cylinders.
First powered airplane flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Alberto Santos-Dumont makes Europe’s first powered airplane flight in France. Because the Wright brothers’ work is not yet well-known, Santos-Dumont is hailed as the inventor of the airplane.
Count Zeppelin’s LZ3 becomes the first successful zeppelin, making flights of up to eight hours. Zeppelins become a focal point of German national pride.
American journalist Walter Wellman makes multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by powered airship.
The Wright brothers’ public flights in France demonstrate that they are far ahead of their competitors in airplane design. Europeans are convinced of the Wrights’ claim to having made the first powered airplane flight.
After the zeppelin LZ4 is wrecked on the ground during an attempted twenty-four-hour flight, the German public donates money to build a replacement.
English parachutist Dolly Shepherd performs the first aerial rescue aboard a balloon at 13,000 feet. When a parachute failed to release from the balloon, Shepherd and her companion descended on a single parachute.
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With the development of powered airplanes and airships, I end the “Balloon Era” more or less at this point, though people continued to test the limits of ballooning after this time. Balloons were used to explore the stratosphere in the 1930s through the early 1960s, and adventurers continue to try for distance records in both helium and hot air balloons to the present day. NOVA at PBS has a ballooning timeline that covers more recent events.
Photo credits for this page: All are from Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Top to bottom: LC-DIG-ppmsca-02447 (Montgolfier balloon); LC-DIG-ppmsca-02505 (Lana’s airship and Garnerin’s parachute); LC-DIG-ppmsca-02573 (Giffard’s airship); LC-USZ62-56907 (Lowe’s balloon); LC-USZ62-17446 (Andree’s balloon); LC-USZ62-100556 (Zeppelin); LC-USZ62-15781 (Santos-Dumont): LC-ggbain.03344 (Wellman)