In 1878-79, Henri Giffard launched a massive hot air balloon from the Tuileries Garden in Paris. He wanted to give the average citizens a chance to experience flight. Up to fifty people could be in the basket for each flight. These photos were taken from the balloon, or of the balloon, using another relatively new invention – photography. By the end of the fair, he had flown 35,000 passengers over Paris.
Emerging technologies and other exciting innovations were on display at the Exposition Universelle, 1878. Among these, were the head of the Statue of Liberty, which was still under construction in Paris. This was the third Paris World’s Fair, from May 1 to November 10. The theme of the fair was a celebration of France’s recovery after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War.
An Engineer by training, Henri Giffard previously designed and flew the first controllable air ship in 1852. He also invented an injector that maximized steam powered engines.
Giffard introduced his giant balloon in the yard of the Tiulri. It was 36 meters in diameter and 55 meters high. It could hold up to 25,000 cubic meters of pure hydrogen and could rise to 600 meters. The basket could carry up to 50 passengers.
He dreamed was to bring flight to the average person. Between July 10, 1878 and November 4, 1878, 35,000 passengers flew in his giant dream. If people didn’t ride in it, they surely saw it floating over Paris. It appeared everywhere, from the Bastille to The Triumphal Arch. Everyone knew the giant.
The name Henri Giffard is engraved on the Eiffel Tower along with 71 other French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in recognition of their contributions.
The development of hot air balloons is a long and complex story, with centuries of innovations building on previous ones. Unmanned hot air balloons were used in China for military signaling as early as 220 AD.
The first known hot air balloon to carry living passengers flew on September 19, 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers launched their Aérostat Réveillon. Attached to a platform suspended from the balloon were a sheep, a rooster and a duck. Each was chosen to study the effects of the aircraft and altitude.
This demonstration was performed before a crowd at the royal palace of Versailles, before King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted eight minutes and traversed roughly two miles at one point reaching an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet. The craft landed safely and the brothers were raised to nobility.
With the sheep, duck and rooster landing unscathed, the brothers determined it was time to put a man on the job.
On November 21, 1783, the first free flight carrying a human occurred in Paris, France. The Montgolfier brothers made the balloon from paper and silk. It carried two men, Francois Pilate de Rozier and Francois Laurent, Marquis of d’ Arlanders.
These passengers stood on a circular platform attached to the bottom of the balloon. Fire was hand-fed through openings on either side of the balloon’s skirt. That flight reached an altitude of approximately 500 feet. It went approximately 5½ miles in 25 minutes and landed safely.
The history of hot air balloons takes off from that point on. (We’ll feature many footnotes in future posts, including the story of the first woman parachutist.) Throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Hot air balloons grew in popularity and as they achieved greater and greater heights. One was flown on Napoleon’s coronation day.
By the Victorian Era, hot air balloons were all the rage. Jules Verne’s book Around The World In Eighty Days was hugely popular and inspired Nellie Bly’s famous race years later.
Balloonists were flying higher and for longer distances. Balloons were used to observe enemy actions during the siege of Paris and became the only means of communication with the suburbs of Paris. Between September 23, 1870 and January 28, 1871, 66 balloons flew from Paris along with 400 pigeons. They carried an estimated 2,500,000 letters.
Santos Dumont started with hot air balloons in 1898, but quickly turned to powered airships that could be controlled. Using the earlier work of Henri Giffard, who in 1852 was the first engineer to prove that an airship could be controlled, Santos-Dumont began building his series of airships over the next decade.
In 1879, a hurricane destroyed the beloved Giffard balloon, but his innovations contributed significantly to the balloons we know today.
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