The history of hot air ballooning can be traced back to the 13th century when Roger Bacon, the great English friar and philosopher, wrote that man could fly if he was fastened to a large hollow ball of thin copper, filled with liquid fire or air. As centuries passed other dreamers hypothesized similar ideas, but it remained for the Montgolfier brothers of France to reduce these dreams to reality. The brothers first came up with the idea to put a pan of burning charcoal beneath a hole in a large cloth bag to inflate the balloon, and in September of 1783 they took it one step farther. With King Louis XVI watching, the Montgolfiers put a duck, rooster and a sheep in a basket slung beneath their cloth balloon. These landmark creatures, an early-day version of Ham, the intrepid monkey who was rocketed into space nearly two hundred years later, flew for eight minutes and landed unharmed.
Plans were later made for man to fly the balloon. Louis offered a condemned criminal for the maiden flight, but his historian, Pilatre de Rozier, said it would be an honor to be the first and he requested permission to make the flight. It is recorded in ballooning history that on October 15, 1783, Rozier became the first man in ‘space’, as it were, staying in the air for 4 1/2 minutes at an altitude of 84 feet, the length of the tethering rope.
Multitudes of inventions and quantum leaps in technology have been made since that red letter day, with practically everything currently used having been invented or improved since then. Everything, that is, except the hot air balloon. It is the same basic mechanism the Montgolfiers devised, improved only in detail; propane burners being substituted for charcoal, and nylon replacing the paper lined cloth bag. True enough, it is more sophisticated, more maneuverable and a much safer mechanism, but the initial idea of it all has not changed.
To really capture the history and experience of hot air ballooning, read our story what it is like to ride in a hot air balloon today!
Want to take your interest in ballooning further? Be sure to read our guide on how to become a hot air balloon pilot, where we break down what it takes, and the requirements and investments involved.