Air Balloons: The Scientific Escape for the Common Man

By: Matthew Rubin, John Edwards, Jennifer Olney, Melissa Bayley, Denzel Cole, and Matt Weems


Hot air balloons date back to the third century, when the Chinese used them as festival decorations as well as a technology for military signaling. However, the concept behind ballooning would not fully take off in Europe until the late eighteenth century. On June 4, 1783, in Annonay, France, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier put on the first public demonstration of ballooning in the world. Their five hundred pound balloon rose to an approximate height of 6,000 feet and remained in the air for ten minutes. The Montgolfier brothers’ success led to interest in the hot air balloon across Europe, but most notably in France and Britain. However, in the Romantic Era, where science was the king, what was the scientific role of ballooning? To explore this question, it is necessary to delve into the topic a little more and explore what made ballooning so captivating to each group of people involved. Contemporary researchers such as Richard Holmes have discussed this at length, but they simply ask the question, “was ballooning a science?”, taking into consideration only the views of governments and scientists. In order to fully understand the impact of ballooning, however, we must take the views of the masses into consideration and examine the effects of their opinions on the science of ballooning.

Ballooning: Scientific and Militaristic Aspects

Not only did proper ballooning require a knowledge of scientific concepts and a plethora of mathematical calculations, but it also benefited other related areas of science, such as meteorology. George Adams, in his “Dissertations on the Barometer, Thermometer, and Other Meteorological Instruments”, approves of the idea that science furthers the development of other areas of science. Ballooning gave scientists the chance to observe the “fluid which surrounds our globe” in a way that many had never dreamed of, flying through the air. The understanding of meteorology, in turn, would greatly improve the study of botany, which Adams claims is directly affected by the changing of the seasons, a concept we know to be true. Therefore, advances in ballooning can be viewed as a gateway to the development of sciences that may have become stagnant before the opportunities for advancement, offered by ballooning, came about.
The first ballooon crossing of the English Channel, January 7th, 1785. A painting by E.W. Cocks of the hydrogen balloon flown by John-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries
The first ballooon crossing of the English Channel, January 7th, 1785. A painting by E.W. Cocks of the hydrogen balloon flown by John-Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries

Nevertheless, many scientists claimed that for a scientific endeavor to be truly scientific, it needed to have a practical use; otherwise, it should be considered a “curiosity or novelty”. Umbra Montgolfieri wrote a “Proposal for an Aeronautic Club” in which he listed some of the possible practical uses for ballooning and defended the balloon’s safety and design as well. Although legitimate arguments for both views of ballooning were brought up throughout the Romantic Era and for many years after the initial debate began, the definition of “scientific” seemed to evade the knowledge of all of those involved in the epic discussion. Practicality and scientific relevancy seemed to be terms that would continually return to the opinions of the people, both notable scientists and commoners alike.

Among those who did believe in the scientific relevancy of air balloons, the military’s utilization of flight was a promising idea for the government to explore. As balloon flight times increased, and the safety of air travel became more apparent, the government began to see the potential of deploying soldiers in balloons. After Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries flew the first hydrogen balloon across the English channel on January 7, 1785, a major bridge was created; man could now use a balloon to fly into another country, from an island no less, within three hours. This major development in ballooning showcased immense possibilities, such as invading rivals on the mainland, using signals during battles, and others that were not possible when traveling by ship or on foot. In one proposal for the creation of a naval air balloon by Thomas Baldwin, Baldwin describes how the balloon should be constructed, how many people it should hold, and how it would be funded, among other things. However, the matter is not simply whether the balloon can be utilized but if the balloon would prove to be of practical scientific use, an issue that was never officially decided upon by society as a whole because of the differing opinions of governments.

As Richard Gillepsie points out in his article “Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786”, “Aerostation in France was quickly dominated by scientists and engineers working within the societies of the Old Regime... In Great Britain, on the other hand, ballooning was controlled by adventurers seeking instant fame and fortune”. Simplified, the French took on ballooning as a group, while British ballooning was dominated by the individual. The Academy of Sciences in France had direct control over Etienne Montgolfier’s experiments. The Royal Society on the other hand, tried to guard against the Balloonomania. In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Banks wrote, “I see an inclination of the more respectable part of the Royal Society to guard against the Ballomania, which has prevalid[sic] in France, and not to patronise Balloons... until some experiment likely to prove beneficial either to Society or Science is proposed to be annext to them”. Therefore, the Royal Society missed out on one of the more peculiar endeavours of the scientific world.

Ballooning and the Public

"Mr. Lunardi's New Balloon" by Julius Ibbetson 1785
"Mr. Lunardi's New Balloon" by Julius Ibbetson 1785

The government and men of science apparently had their own opinions about the scientific usefulness of the air balloon; however, the thoughts of the people
and their views on ballooning ultimately can explain to us what the majority of the European society during the Romantic Era thought about this new “science”. Baldwin points out in his book Airopaidia that many accounts that were given about traveling in an air balloon were “vague and unsatisfactory”. The public is very much intrigued by reading these accounts, but the difference between what is written in the accounts and what is actually experienced when in flight created a gap between the scientific views of an elite few and the popular beliefs of the observing masses. Baldwin’s book attempts to describe the preparations and experiences of a balloon flight in the most easily understood and detailed way so as to include the common people, both those who were interested in the matter and those who were not, in the great discovery of lighter-than-air travel.

Another writer, by the last name of Kearsley, supported this notion of explaining the science of ballooning in simpler terms in order to include the
public in the discoveries at hand in the scientific world. He tells of how the Montgolfier brothers began as humble paper-makers in Paris and then went on to create something so extraordinary as a means of flight. Kearsley insists that there may be people among the masses, such as “millers or wheel-wrights”, who could contribute to the advancement of the balloon, or any area of science for that matter, after being educated on the methods and scientific calculations behind it all. Kearsley, like Baldwin, dedicates his work The Air Balloon to do just that: educate the public about ballooning in a way they can understand.

Perhaps this idea that a common man, such as the Montgolfier brothers, could use experim
entation and a basic knowledge of scientific concepts to create something as revolutionary as ballooning was one aspect of flight that interested the public. It wasn’t simply flight itself but the potential for a common person to contribute so much to his fellow man and to be so well-known for such a contribution. In this way, ballooning was much like botany, a scientific endeavour in which the public could participate.

Public interest, however, was not limited to this; some simply were interested in the aesthetic aspects of air balloons. In Paul Keen’s “Balloonomania”, he describes how images of balloons were imposed on jewelry, chinaware, and other trinkets. Toy balloons were crafted and gave children a part to play in the wonder of air travel. Playwrights began to incorporate ballooning in their works because they knew how much it attracted the interests of the public.

Others loved the mystery and expansion of their own imaginations when they thought of humans flying through the air. In Mary Alcock’s poem, “The Air Balloon”, she describes a journey in a balloon which takes her away from “worldly evils”, leaving “the creeping world to sink and die”. This idea that flight could take people away from their problems on earth was very appealing to the common people because it offered an outlet for them to forget the issues going on in their lives. They could simply watch a balloon launch and imagine, as the balloon goes up in the air, that they are for once in their lives free from care. Ballooning in this sense took on a very romantic appeal, which is one of the reasons that it was so widely seen in artwork and poetry of the time.
"The Second Ascent In The Field of Nesle By Jacques Charles 1746-1823 on the 1st of December" by Claude Louis Desrais
"The Second Ascent In The Field of Nesle By Jacques Charles 1746-1823 on the 1st of December" by Claude Louis Desrais

No matter what the reason was, people loved ballooning. Many accounts are given of those who would visit London, but rather than having a visit to family or friends as a top priority, they would be sure to see the Lunardi’s balloon on display before taking care of any other business in the city. One woman, Betsy Sheridan, who saw the exhibit claimed “All the world give their shillings to see it.” At the first manned flight, launched on October 15, 1783, in front of the royal family by the Montgolfier brothers, there were around one hundred thousand people watching the spectacle. The crowds for such events only grew from here. People would drive to nearby hills to watch the flight in its entirety; others would sit on top of their roof to see the launch. Still, there were those in rural parts of the country that would catch a glimpse of the balloons flying by as they worked on their farms. It became a scientific discovery that everyone could participate in, even if participation was classified as sitting and observing.


Once all of the perspectives have been taken into account, in addition to factoring in the scientific concepts that were involved in ballooning, we find that ballooning has scientific merit. This is not to say that ballooning was not chic in the Romantic Era because Balloonomania was real. But, the common misconception that ballooning is simple and involves making a fire and going where the wind blows is wrong. Proper ballooning like that pursued by the Academy of Sciences involves calculations, precise and accurate measurements, and experimentation. However, the public spectacle of ballooning distracted many scientists such as Joseph Banks from the scientific merits of ballooning. Banks failed to realize that one such merit of ballooning was the public spectacle; the public was involved and could finally witness the pursuit of scientific discovery. Consequently, many close-minded people failed to see the opportunities that balloons could give the scientific world to benefit society such as advancements in meteorology, astronomy, and topography. Although William Wordsworth may not agree with the pursuit of these subject areas because they seek to understand the world as opposed to appreciating nature, ballooning was the ultimate Romantic science because it combined wonder with discovery.

Air Balloon Calculator

Follow the link below to use the air balloon calculator. Here, values can be inputted for temperature,volume and weight to determine how high an air balloon can rise.

Air Balloon Calculator

Related keywords


The Popular Encyclopedia: Aeronautic 1836. (Sandford, Daniel K; Thomson,Thomas; Cunningham, Allan)
In this article the experiments that lead up to the first flight of the montgolfier balloon are discussed briefly. The article then continues to talk about other flights that took place: the flight of Lunardi in England, the flights of Blanchard and Rozier across the English Channel and the failed failed training of aeronauts in France during the French Revolution.

A System of Aeronautics 1850. (Wise, John.)
This book provides a complete look as to what has been done in the field of aeronautics to that point. Most of the instances noted in this book are fully plausible and mathematically base but a few tales were added due to their effect on how aeronautics were viewed at the time. The author also adds his observations and results from his own meteorological experiments from his voyages.

The History and Practice of Aerostation. 1785. (Cavallo, Tiberius.)
The source contains a descriptive summary of the new science of travelling through air. It describes the new terminology used in this science, such as aeronaut, aerostatic machine, and aerostat. The book records every particular that appears to be “likely to open the way for farther discoveries.” It was meant to give the common person an understanding of air ballooning by leaving out the mathematical aspects that were not understood by most at the time.

Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786, Aerostation and Adventurism. 1984. (Gillespie, Richard)
The article discusses the differences between the paths aerostation took in France and Britain. In France, the Academic Royale des Sciences had a strong interest in aeronautics and conducted many experiments regarding it. In Britain, aerostation caught the attention of adventurers seeking fortune and fame and many scientists shunned it. The article goes on to discuss the main differences and how aeronautics was pursued by each country.
The “Balloonomania”: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England. 2006. (Keen, Paul)
This article talks about Ballooning craze and how it affected life and culture in late eighteenth century England. It follows key events such as the Montgolfier launch in 1783 to the fashion balloon times of 1784 and it’s decline in 1787.


A Treatise on Pneumatics: Being the Physics of Gases, Including Vapors. 1855. (Boye, Martin H.)
The subject of inanimate matter is discussed in the book. The different types of sciences, including pneumatics, that deal with inanimate matter are described at length throughout the book. The author describes all aspects of the atmosphere, including a complete dissection of its contents . The author then addresses different devices used in the study of pneumatics and describes how they work and what they consist of. The instruments and concepts described are complete with calculated tables of results.

Elements of natural Philosophy. 1838. (Gale, Leonard Dunnell)
The section of the book focuses primarily on pneumatics and experiments done in relationship with the atmosphere. These studies with pneumatics directly affected the science of ballooning. The relationship between pneumatics and aerostatics is identified in the article as well as the relationship between the atmosphere and ballooning.

Pneumatics; for the use of Beginners 1848. (Tomlinson, Charles.) The book gives a basic understanding of pneumatics to the reader. It includes a description of what the atmosphere is/consists of and other specific details about it. The book then goes on to describe different concepts within pneumatics, giving specific details on the main aspects of the subject. Descriptions of how different air pumps work and are used are also included.

Pneumatic Chemistry and Newtonian Natural Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century: William Cullen and Joseph Black. 1976. (Donovan, Arthur) This article discusses the experiments of Joseph Black, and how they were viewed as insignificant at the time although they had important implications. The experiments were primarily in the field of pneumatics. Although they were viewed as unimportant at time, the author points out that eventually, they received appropriate respect.
Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pneumatic Medicine. 1990. (Schaffer, Simon) This article discusses the use of Pnuematics within the medical field. It takes Priestly’s pneumatic research and Bentham’s panopticon and correlates their findings to applicable techniques that were starting to be applied in that day in age.


The New and Complete American Encyclopedia:Aerology 1805. The encyclopedia includes all terms related to aeronautics as well as aerology. Specific and thorough definitions are provided for each term. A lengthy description of aerostation is also included, complete with important scientists and dates relating to the subject. Specific accounts of ballooning voyages are also describe at length.

The Expansion of Gases by Heat. 1902. (Biot, J., Dalton, J.Gay-Lussac, J., Regnault, V., Chappuis, P.)
The book describes the different scientific experiments conducted by different scientists of the time on the effects of heat on air. It contains the experiments of the French Chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac on the expansion of air. The book details the results of different temperatures on different types of gases.

Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England.1938. (Merton, Robert.)
The article looks at experiments involving aerostatics in the Seventeenth century besides ballooning. It includes descriptions of aerostatic experiments conducted for mining purposes, such as ventilation and for creating air pumps. Descriptions of the experiments by Hooke and Boyle pertaining to the mining aspect of aerostatics are included.

Medical Men in Early Aeronautics. 1926.
The article, which appeared in the British Medical Journal, describes a lecture given by Dr. Poynton at the Royal Society of Medicine. His lecture, entitled “The part taken by doctors in the early days of aeronautics,” describes how many medical men were involved in air ballooning due to their knowledge of aerostatics.

An Analysis of the Principles of Natural Philosophy. 1811. (Young, Matthew)
The book describes the use of a barometer as it relates to aerostatics. It gives specific instructions on how to use the device and what it measures. Different equations and charts are given in the book as well. Important terminology is describe in relation to how the barometer works.

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