Hot-Air Balloons Are Useless

When they were invented, the vessels promised to revolutionize travel and industry. But they soon settled into life as an entertaining diversion. An Object Lesson.

Hot-air balloons and their reflections along a coastline
Mario Armas / Reuters

The first hot-air balloons drew huge crowds, inspiring onlookers to cry, laugh, even faint. One witness wrote, “Since these exhibitions, there seems to prevail a kind of aerial phrenzy among us. The term ‘balloon’ is not only in the mouth of everyone, but all our world seems to be in the clouds.” For some, the new invention was the culmination of Enlightenment science, the pinnacle of human ingenuity. Grand schemes abounded: using balloons to carry mail, to improve cartography, to bombard enemy fortifications. Then, almost overnight, the fervor subsided as everyone sobered to the fact that these vehicles, which couldn’t be steered, were largely useless.

Balloons have always moved minds better than they’ve moved bodies. The upward lift mimics the feeling of ideas drifting into the mind. The haphazard flight path suggests the possibility of being whisked to some faraway world—to Oz, for instance. But today, people are far less likely to have ridden in a balloon than to have read about one in fiction.

The weather was propitious on November 21, 1783, when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes climbed aboard a smoke-filled balloon and rose into the air over a growing Parisian crowd. The two Frenchmen forked straw into the burner and marveled at the scene underneath. Benjamin Franklin observed the flight from his terrace: a beautiful, blue-and-gold ovoid, like a giant Fabergé egg, floating above the Seine. As Franklin recollected, “Someone asked me, ‘What’s the use of a balloon?’ I replied, ‘What’s the use of a newborn baby?’”

Others were less philosophical. People ran and shouted in the streets. Some were so disturbed they got sick and vomited. Two weeks later, 400,000 spectators—more than half the population of Paris at the time—watched the ascension of the first hydrogen balloon. The restless audience would have rioted in the event of failure, but success, too, caused mayhem. People scrambled up walls, trees, and poles to get a better look at the candy-striped globe soaring in the distance. On such occasions, the rules of decorum, like the laws of nature, seemed no longer to apply.

Very soon there were demonstrations in Britain and throughout Europe and North America. Vincenzo Lunardi was the first to christen the English sky. About a year after Pilâtre de Rozier and Arlandes, as many as 200,000 stared in wonder as the charismatic Italian waved a flag, doffed his hat, and addressed the crowd beneath him with a speaking trumpet. The next time, Lunardi dropped notes from the basket to convey “his best compliments to his terrestrial friends.”

But no one did more for the popularity of ballooning than Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the ablest aeronaut of the day, who set a record for distance—300 miles—and earned honors as first to fly in a number of countries, including the early United States in 1793. Blanchard, flying with the American doctor John Jeffries, was also first to cross the English Channel, in 1785, though he would have failed had the duo not thrown everything overboard, including the clothes on their backs. Even then, they still descended until both leaned over and relieved themselves of “between five and six pounds of urine,” which finally did the trick and allowed the balloon to rise.

For a time, balloons were big business. Lunardi and Blanchard sold tickets to their launches and to exhibitions of their equipment. And the balloon craze sparked a fashion craze, too. Women wore balloon-shaped hats and bonnets and dresses, along with balloon-emblazoned fans, purses, and umbrellas. Men had balloon-themed waistcoats and pantaloons. Almost everything with a flat surface was decorated with the image of a colorful balloon: chairs, desks, bowls, plates, napkins, tables, clocks, couches, bureaus. In the air or on the ground, ballooning was in vogue.

From the start there were skeptics, especially in England, where many viewed ballooning as a French frivolity. Horace Walpole, author of the first gothic novel, dubbed the phenomenon “balloonomania” and complained, “All our views are directed to the air. Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody.” If it wasn’t foolish, he opined, it was potentially destructive, a new technology for aerial warfare: “I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and the idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science.”

The Montgolfier brothers had spoken of an aerial siege of Gibraltar, but that was just one of the projected applications of balloons. The Italian physicist Tiberius Cavallo thought the technology would improve scientific observation of the Earth, the atmosphere, and the cosmos above. More practically, Cavallo believed balloons could be used to cross swamps and ascend mountains. Intellectuals were drunk on hope, or hype, and the possibility of a utopian future with a sky full of balloons—an attitude familiar to our own day of supposedly world-saving inventions.

But then the bubble burst, literally. On June 15, 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier died when his double balloon, fueled by a combination of smoke and hydrogen, caught fire and fell 5,000 feet to the ground. About a year later, a young man was snagged in one of Lunardi’s ropes, lifted off the ground, and dropped knee-deep into a flower bed, which killed him soon after. Blanchard’s Aerostatic Academy, the first flight school, failed to enroll enough students to continue operating. Everyone realized balloons couldn’t be steered or controlled, despite many attempts with oars, wings, sails, and rudders. The fad receded and didn’t revive until the 19th century—and then only for recreation and entertainment. The balloon’s promise for transit and industry was deflated.

After their industrial failure, balloons remained a fixture of literature. On the page, they express the promise of being unbound, set free: buoyant with joyful weightlessness but liable to be blown anywhere. To this day, balloons symbolize humor and whimsy; they evoke high spirits, even giddiness—the repudiation of gravity in both senses. In the second volume of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, published in 1786, the mischievous Baron uses a balloon to lift up castles and place them elsewhere while the inhabitants sleep. Yet balloons don’t just go up, but also come down, often in dangerous and unpredictable ways. They’re just as likely to elicit feelings of doubt and fear as joy and freedom.

Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, the first of the author’s voyages imaginaires, offers a memorable example of the lightheartedness associated with balloons. Published in 1863, the novel follows the adventures of Samuel Ferguson, his friend Dick Kennedy, and Ferguson’s wisecracking servant, Joe, as the trio flies east to west across Africa, from Zanzibar to the Senegal River. It’s a quest in the name of science and empire, undertaken with hubris and nationalism, and there’s never much doubt of the outcome. Ferguson’s motto, proclaimed to the Royal Geographical Society, is “Excelsior!” and indeed they rise ever upward, over all obstacles, keeping faith in providential interventions. At one point, tossed in a thunderstorm, Ferguson exclaims, “God help us!”—and sure enough, the storm abates.

The mood is more facetious in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad, a parody of Verne’s novel published in 1894 that sends Tom, Huck, and Jim on a balloon trip across Africa in the opposite direction, all the way to Mount Sinai. Ferguson’s important mission is here exchanged for aimless, often farcical adventure, and Huck extolls the virtues of balloon life thus: “Up here in the sky it was so still and sunshiny and lovely, and plenty to eat, and plenty of sleep, and strange things to see, and no nagging and no pestering, and no good people, and just holiday all the time.”

But such levity is hard to sustain, especially in our own day. Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love reminds readers that balloons are actually dangerous. In the opening pages, a group of passersby tries to bring down an errant balloon, but the wind picks up and yanks them into the air. Ultimately one of the men loses his grip from very high up, falling to his death. As McEwan writes, “No forgiveness, no special dispensation for flesh, or bravery, or kindness. Only ruthless gravity.” We might add to this the chance of contrary winds and the fickleness of human choice. In various ways, the rest of the novel replays this sense of vertiginous uncertainty, the feeling of a void beneath your feet, the dizzy realization that you can’t take anything for granted, least of all an un-steerable bag of air on a gusty day.

In fiction, then, balloons can be ciphers for the natural world, giving voice to the mute forces of the atmosphere. Is that God’s hand lifting us to heaven? Or do we put our faith in science? Of course, the weather doesn’t always do what people expect, let alone desire, which is why most of us enjoy the local balloon festival from a safe distance. Wind, pressure, gravity: These are wordless phenomena. Fiction writers can make them legible, whereas actual balloonists must take their chances.