Lafayette, Ind., 1859. Credit Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society
The End of a Golden Age: Ballooning after 1859
John Wise’s life roughly paralleled what has been called the Golden Age of Ballooning. Always a showman, Wise endlessly promoted his launches as a way to sell the tickets to finance the materials and gas he needed for flight. As ballooning became more common throughout America in the years after the Civil War, aeronauts turned to more and more dangerous stunts to draw audiences. The pretense of science was gone, and balloonists struggled to make their name through stunts like the one in the picture below. Wise, however, corresponded frequently with Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about ozone levels, wind currents and the physiological dimension of reaching the heights. Wise often conducted experiments in the air for Henry that helped to advance scientific knowledge during the mid-19th century.
Prof. A.T. Glasgow poster, 1898
Courtesy Library of Congress
Hot air was the first gas used for balloons and is also the gas most people associate with passenger balloons. Brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier built and launched what they called “smoke balloons.” They believed that a special gas released from burning things made their balloons float, but today we know that the hot air, not the smoke particles, made the balloon float. Smoke ballooning was a dangerous way to make a living—with no valves to control descent, these balloons could easily be knocked off-course.
First national balloon race, 1909
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
In 1909, one year before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for car races, nine hydrogen-filled balloons launched for the first national balloon race. A trophy cup was awarded to the winner. This year is the 100th anniversary of this event, and the Speedway plans to kick off their race season with a commemorative balloon race.
Modern Virgin hot-air balloon
Modern Hot-Air Ballooning
In the early 1960s, Ed Yost developed what we now consider modern hot-air ballooning. Other pioneers in the renaissance of sport ballooning include Don Piccard, who built a balloon out of a Japanese bomb, and Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand, who were the first aeronauts to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon.
Modern scientific ballooning
Courtesy of NASA
NASA Scientific Ballooning
Balloons were used in the early stages of space exploration. Their ability to reach the higher levels of the atmosphere made them valuable for testing the endurance of equipment and flight suits in “near space”. NASA and other organizations continue to use balloons for researching the atmosphere of other planets, as well as for weather and atmospheric tests on our planet.