On 19 October 1783, two young French brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Mongolfier, launched the first ever manned hot air balloon flight. The balloon was made of silk, with a wood and paper frame, and was filled with hot air from a fire of wool and straw.
Famously, the Mongolfier brothers were the first aviators to successfully launch a human being into the air. For centuries, people had dreamed of flying like birds; now, at last, that dream had become a reality. But the origins of hot air balloons can, in theory at least, be traced back further than the Mongolfiers’ breakthrough. Though the brothers are rightly lauded as innovators, it’s widely speculated that the technology behind their invention was employed centuries earlier.
The hazily understood pre-modern origins of the hot air balloon have generated plenty of speculation and some interesting theories.
Julian Nott’s Nazca Lines theory
In the 1970s, the noted British balloonist Julian Nott explored the possibility of pre-historic hot air balloon use and proposed the notion that balloons may have been used to create the mysterious Nazca geoglyphs in Peru.
Created between 500 BC and 500 AD, the Nazca Lines are a group of vast geometric shapes etched into the deserts of Southern Peru. They were made by removing red pebbles on the desert surface to create a contrast with the lighter earth beneath. The resulting designs, some of which are as large as a football pitch, have remained intact for thousands of years thanks to the dry, windless desert conditions.
It’s often noted that many of the geoglyphs – the purpose of which is debated but likely religious – are best seen from the air, leading some to wonder if the Nazca civilisation might have had some means of achieving such a vantage point. Intrigued by Jim Woodman’s notion that some method of manned flight akin to a hot air balloon was used, Nott put the theory into practice by creating a prehistoric hot air balloon using only methods and materials that were available to pre-Incan Peruvians.
In 1975 Nott unveiled the Nazca Prehistoric Balloon, nicknamed Condor, and successfully flew over the Nazca Lines. While Nott himself retained a healthy degree of scepticism, his experiment proved that the potential for hot air balloon flight existed in the pre-modern age:
“… while I do not see any evidence that the Nazca civilization did fly, it is beyond any doubt that they could have. And so could the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Vikings, any civilization. With just a loom and fire you can fly!”
Zhug Liange and the Kongming Lamp
While Julian Nott’s prehistoric balloon theory is fascinating but ultimately entirely speculative, the use of unmanned hot air balloons in China during the Three Kingdoms era (220 – 280 AD) is more widely recorded. Some historians even suggest that the Chinese experimented with the use of small hot air balloons for signalling as early as the 3rd century BC.
The invention of the sky lantern is usually attributed to the military strategist Zhuge Liang; indeed, they are often referred to as Kǒngmíng lanterns in tribute to Liang’s reverent term of address. He is said to have devised a rudimentary sky lantern when his troops were surrounded and facing a siege. With the enemy watching carefully for messengers, Zhuge Liang had to improvise.
Noting that the wind was blowing in the direction of his allies, he requested a lantern with no hole in the top and a wax burner held in the bottom. Having painted a message onto the lantern he then releases it from a tower in the besieged town. Sure enough, the lantern drifted high above the heads of the invading forces and made its way to Zhuge Liang’s allies, who promptly sent reinforcements.
Sky lanterns of this sort continued to be used as a means of military communication and surveillance in ancient Chinese warfare before gradually assuming a more decorative role in Chinese culture. Kongming lamps became a common sight at festivals where they were released, often en masse, into the night sky as a symbol of hope and celebration.
Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s lighter-than-air airship
In 1709, 74 years before the Mongolfier Brothers’ debut flight, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a Brazilian-born Portuguese priest turned aeronautical innovator, presented a showcase of his pioneering work before the Court in the hall of the Casa da Índia in Lisbon. Designed to give the audience, which included King João V of Portugal, a demonstration of the theory behind his airship concept, Gusmão propelled a small balloon made of paper about four meters into the air, using combustion that filled the balloon with hot air – a design that could be said to prefigure the Montgolfier Brothers’ ballooning technology.
The crowd was suitably impressed and the King appointed him to a professorship at Coimbra. Gusmão continued his aeronautical investigations, producing a number of interesting designs, including a balloon named Passarola (‘big bird’), which according to unconfirmed reports, he built and flew, albeit for just 1 km.
Ultimately, Gusmão died before properly realising any of his airship designs but his achievements were reappraised later in the 18th century in light of the Montgolfiers’ ballooning breakthrough. In 1786 the London Daily Universal Register (later The Times) reported that the literati of Portugal had made “numerous researches” that prefigured the Montgolfier balloon, claiming that “various living persons affirm that they were present at the Jesuit’s experiments, and that he received the surname of Voador, or Flying-man.”