History of Airships and Balloons

History of Airships and Balloons

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Background and Definitions: Airships and Balloons

The airship by Dupuy de Lôme (1816 - 1885, French engineer and politician). (Getty Images)

There are two kinds of floating lighter-than-air or LTA craft: the balloon and the airship. A balloon is an unpowered LTA craft that can lift. An airship is a powered LTA craft that can lift and then maneuver in any direction against the wind.


Balloons and airships lift because they are buoyant, meaning that the total weight of the airship or balloon is less than the weight of the air it displaces. The Greek philosopher Archimedes first established the basic principle of buoyancy.

Hot air balloons were first flown by the brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier as early as the spring of 1783. While the materials and technology are very different, the principles used by the earliest eighteenth-century experimenters continue to carry modern sport and weather balloons aloft.

Types of Airships

There are three types of airships: the nonrigid airship, often called a blimp; the semirigid airship, and the rigid airship, sometimes called a Zeppelin.

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First Flights - Hot Air Balloons and the Montgolfier Brothers

The ascent of a Montgolfier hot air balloon in Melbourne Jan 01, 1900. (Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images)

The Montgolfier brothers, born in Annonay, France, were the inventors of the first practical balloon. The first demonstrated flight of a hot air balloon took place on June 4, 1783, in Annonay, France.

Montgolfier Balloon

Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, paper mill owners, were trying to float bags made of paper and fabric. When the brothers held a flame near the opening at the bottom, the bag (called a balloon) expanded with hot air and floated upward. The Montgolfier brothers built a larger paper-lined silk balloon and demonstrated it on June 4, 1783, in the marketplace at Annonay. Their balloon (called a Montgolfiere) lifted 6,562 feet into the air.

First Passengers

On September 19, 1783, in Versailles, a Montgolfiere hot air balloon carrying a sheep, a rooster, and a duck flew for eight minutes in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court.

First Manned Flight

On October 15, 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes were the first human passengers on a Montgolfiere balloon. The balloon was in free flight, meaning it was not tethered.

On January 19, 1784, a huge Montgolfiere hot air balloon carried seven passengers to a height of 3,000 feet over the city of Lyons.

Montgolfier Gas

At the time, the Montgolfiers believed they had discovered a new gas (they called Montgolfier gas) that was lighter than air and caused the inflated balloons to rise. In fact, the gas was merely air, which became more buoyant as it was heated.

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Hydrogen Balloons - Jacques Charles

Jacques Charles takes flight in his hydrogen balloon. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Frenchman, Jacques Charles invented the first hydrogen balloon in 1783.

Less than two weeks after the ground-breaking Montgolfier flight, the French physicist Jacques Charles (1746-1823) and Nicolas Robert (1758-1820) made the first untethered ascension with a gas hydrogen balloon on December 1, 1783. Jacques Charles combined his expertise in making hydrogen with Nicolas Robert's new method of coating silk with rubber.

Charlière Hydrogen Balloon

The Charlière hydrogen balloon exceeded the earlier Montgolfier hot air balloon in time in the air and distance traveled. With its wicker gondola, netting, and valve-and-ballast system, it became the definitive form of the hydrogen balloon for the next 200 years. The audience in the Tuileries Gardens was reported as 400,000, half the population of Paris.

The limitation of using hot air was that when the air in the balloon cooled, the balloon was forced to descend. If a fire was kept burning to warm the air constantly, sparks were likely to reach the bag and set it afire. Hydrogen overcame this obstacle.

First Ballooning Fatalities

On June 15, 1785, Pierre Romain and Pilatre de Rozier were the first persons to die in a balloon. Pilatre de Rozier was both the first to fly and to die in a balloon. Using a dangerous combination of hot-air and hydrogen proved fatal to the pair, whose dramatic crash before a large crowd only temporarily dampened the balloon mania sweeping France in the late eighteenth century.

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Hydrogen Balloon with Flapping Devices - Jean Blanchard

The balloon of Jean-Pierre Blanchard ascending from Lille on August 26, 1785. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) designed a hydrogen balloon with flapping devices to control its flight.

First Balloon Flight Across the English Channel

Jean-Pierre Blanchard soon moved to England, where he gathered a small group of enthusiasts, including Boston physician, John Jeffries. John Jeffries offered to pay for what became the first flight across the English Channel in 1785.

John Jeffries later wrote that they sank so low crossing the English Channel that they threw everything overboard including most of their clothing, arriving safely on land "almost naked as the trees."

Balloon Flight in the United States

The first real balloon flight in the United States did not occur until the Jean-Pierre Blanchard ascended from the yard of the Washington Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 9, 1793. That day, President George Washington, the French ambassador, and a crowd of onlookers watched Jean Blanchard ascend to about 5,800 feet.

First Airmail

Blanchard carried the first piece of airmail with him, a passport presented by President Washington that directed all citizens of the United States, and others, that they oppose no hindrance to the said Mr. Blanchard and help in his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.

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History of the Airship - Henri Giffard

Dirigible created by French engineer Henri Giffard in 1852. (De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Early balloons were not truly navigable. Attempts to improve maneuverability included elongating the balloon's shape and using a powered screw to push it through the air.

Henri Giffard

Thus the airship (also called a dirigible), a lighter-than-air craft with propulsion and steering systems was born. Credit for the construction of the first navigable full-sized airship goes to the French engineer, Henri Giffard, who, in 1852, attached a small, steam-powered engine to a huge propeller and chugged through the air for seventeen miles at a top speed of five miles per hour.

Alberto Santos-Dumont Gasoline-Powered Airship

However, it was not until the invention of the gasoline-powered engine in 1896 that practical airships could be built. In 1898, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was the first to construct and fly a gasoline-powered airship.

Arriving in Paris in 1897, Alberto Santos-Dumont first made a number of flights with free balloons and also purchased a motorized tricycle. He thought of combining the De Dion engine that powered his tricycle with a balloon, which resulted in 14 small airships that were all gasoline-powered. His No. 1 airship first flew on September 18, 1898.

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The Baldwin Dirigible

Daredevil and pilot Lincoln Beachey examines the airship owned by Thomas Scott Baldwin at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

During the summer of 1908, the U.S. Army tested the Baldwin dirigible. Lts. Lahm, Selfridge, and Foulois flew the dirigible. Thomas Baldwin was appointed by the United States Government to superintend the building of all spherical, dirigible and kite balloons. He built the first Government airship in 1908.

An American inventor Thomas Baldwin built a 53-foot airship, the California Arrow. It won a one-mile race in October 1904, at the St. Louis World Fair with Roy Knabenshue at the controls. In 1908, Baldwin sold the U.S. Army Signal Corps an improved dirigible that was powered by a 20-horsepower Curtiss engine. This machine, designated the SC-1, was the Army's first powered aircraft.

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The Zeppelin - Rigid Framed Airships - Ferdinand Zeppelin

Zeppelin LZ1 in a floating hanger at Manzell, Friedrichshafen, Germany, 1900. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Zeppelin was the name given to the duralumin-internal-framed dirigibles invented by the persistent Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

The first rigid framed airship flew on November 3, 1897 and was designed by David Schwarz, a timber merchant. Its skeleton and outer cover were made of aluminum. Powered by a 12-horsepower Daimler gas engine connected to three propellers, it lifted off successfully in a tethered test at Templehof near Berlin, Germany, however, the airship crashed.

Ferdinand Zeppelin 1838-1917

In 1900, German military officer, Ferdinand Zeppelin invented a rigid framed dirigible or airship that became known as the Zeppelin. Zeppelin flew the world's first untethered rigid airship, the LZ-1, on July 2, 1900, near Lake Constance in Germany, carrying five passengers.

The cloth-covered dirigible, which was the prototype of many subsequent models, had an aluminum structure, seventeen hydrogen cells, and two 15-horsepower Daimler internal combustion engines, each turning two propellers. It was about 420 feet long and 38 feet in diameter. During its first flight, it flew about 3.7 miles in 17 minutes and reached a height of 1,300 feet.

In 1908, Ferdinand Zeppelin established the Friederichshafen (The Zeppelin Foundation) for the development of aerial navigation and the manufacture of airships.

Ferdinand Zeppelin

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Resources - Montgolfier Balloon - Army Balloon

Hot air balloons take flight at a festival. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) 09of 10

Types of Airships - Nonrigid Airship and Semirigid Airship

Four inflated free balloons with non-rigid airship in LTA hangar at NAS Lakehurst, NJ April 15, 1940. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The airship evolved from the spherical balloon first successfully flown by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. Airships are basically large, controllable balloons that have an engine for propulsion, use rudders and elevator flaps for steering, and carry passengers in a gondola suspended under the balloon.

There are three types of airships: the nonrigid airship, often called a blimp; the semirigid airship, and the rigid airship, sometimes called a Zeppelin.

The first effort at building an airship involved stretching the round balloon into an egg shape that was kept inflated by internal air pressure. These non-rigid airships, commonly called blimps, used ballonets, air bags located inside the outer envelope that expanded or contracted to compensate for changes in the gas.p Because these blimps often collapsed under stress, designers added a fixed keel under the envelope to give it strength or enclosed the gas bag inside a frame. These semirigid airships were often used for reconnaissance flights.

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Types of Airships - Rigid Airship or Zeppelin

A zeppelin is the most famous type of rigid airship. (Michael Interisano/Getty Images)

The rigid airship was the most useful type of airship. A rigid airship has an internal framework of steel or aluminum girders that supports the outside material and gives it shape. Only this type of airship could reach sizes that made it useful for carrying passengers and cargo.