by Laurie Alice Eakes
From at least as far back as the origins of the Greek myths, flight of man has fascinated man (and woman). Many tried and pretty much all failed--until the hot air balloon.
No one is quite sure who invented the idea of filling a bag with hot air and attaching a car AKA the basket for flight. As with many inventions, speculation and half-formed theories abound from the Chinese, to the people of the Nazca culture in Peru. Europeans, however, made ballooning a reality to the early modern world.
In 1783, two Frenchmen, de Rozier, along with Marquis François d'Arlandes, took to the sky in the first untethered flight. Before this, many men had sailed aloft while the balloon remained attached to the earth by ropes; therefore, the highest flight was only 80 feet and not precisely flying.
Flying is rather a misnomer with ballooning. In truth, all one can do in a balloon is drift. With favorable wind currents, you may even get where you want to go. Balloons, however, are not steerable. Many tried to find a way to do so, but none proved effective. Balloonists raised and lowered the level of the balloon through air flow, in order to find the most favorable wind currents.
In the early years, before propane tanks to fill the balloon with hot air, going far, even with favorable currents, was not particularly feasible for the simple fact that they needed to carry fuel and a great deal of it for two simple reasons. First of all, the air did not stay in the balloon due to the lack of air-tight fabric, and at the high elevations at which people flew, the air cooled off rather quickly and the balloon began to sink.
Some chemical compounds helped with the air seepage. These included rather combustible chemicals such as bird lime, which was an oily substance used by hunters to make birds stick to tree branches. When mixed and added to linseed oil, aeronauts cooked it to the right consistency as a sealant. It worked fairly well, but if it got near fire. . .Poof!
Balloonists also double-stitched the silk of the balloon fabric, which helped the seals. All that was still not good enough. The hot air needed constant replenishment.
Those men and women who took man into the skies went up in a wooden basket with live fire, straw, iron shavings, and acid.
A brazier held the fire, which the aeronaut fed regularly with straw to keep it going. If that fire extinguished, the air would cool, the balloon would sink, and the passengers would likely die in a crash. If the brazier spilled. . . Well, fire was a very real and too often deadly possibility.
Above the fire, the balloonist suspended a beaker filled with iron shavings and acid. When heated, this toxic combination formed hydrogen. That hydrogen rose from the beaker to the balloon through a wax-coated canvas tube. (At http://www.regencyreflections.com on October 8, 2012, I will discuss what happened to an Irish aeronaut when his tubing and balloon separated in flight.)
Ballooning is still not precisely a safe form of flight. Using a propane tank at tent thousand feet above the earth holds its risks, and balloons are still subject to whimsical and capricious wind currents. But propane seems positively foolproof compared to going aloft with live fire, and acid. Just the idea of going aloft with live fire creating hydrogen, a highly flammable element, makes me queasy. Yet the men and, yes, women who pioneered balloon flight considered the risk worth the experience and potential for navigation.
Sadly, especially for those who died in the trying, ballooning never became a viable form of transportation. With the need to carry live fire and fuel and being subject to the direction of the wind, no one could, for example, sail over enemy territory during a war. Balloons just did not have that kind of range. What the aeronauts did for the future of flying was let mankind know it could be done and thousands of people—now probably billions—would take to the skies when someone invented a navigable machine.
“Eakes has a charming way of making her novels come to life without being over the top,” writes Romantic times of bestselling, award-winning author Laurie Alice Eakes. Since she lay in bed as a child telling herself stories, she has fulfilled her dream of becoming a published author with a dozen books and novellas in print and more on the way. A graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program, she also teaches writing and gives inspirational talks to women’s groups. She lives in Texas with her husband, dogs, and cats.
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