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Balloons at War

Posted by Laurie Frost on July 20, 2009

After looking at the Tissandier collection at the Library of Congress (see previous post), I decided to see what other images of balloons in the public domain I could find. Three categories emerged: exploration, science, and war.

Should I have been surprised that within weeks of the first manned hot-air balloon ascent in 1783, Benjamin Franklin was speculating on the effectiveness of employing this new technology in battle? I learned this at the website archiving the transcripts for Engines of Ingenuity, a radio program produced by KUHF-FM in Houston and broadcast on NPR. Since 1988, John Lienhard and others have examined “the record of history to reveal the way art, technology, and ideas have shaped us.”

Lienhard explains that shortly after the first hot air balloon ascent, Franklin had watched the launch of a hydrogyn balloon. In a letter to a Dutch botanist, Franklin offered several observations to the effect, Lienhard writes, that

it’s too bad so many rulers fail to take balloons seriously, because it’d be impossible to defend against an attack of steerable balloons. He suggests that an invading force of 5000 balloons, two men in each, would cost about as much as one ship of the line, and would pose a far greater threat….Franklin ends by discussing the relative merits of hydrogen and hot air. Hydrogen costs a lot more and takes days to generate, but it also has five times the lifting force and you don’t need a fire to stay aloft. He mentions some work being done on a gas made from sea coal, but he doesn’t yet know its relative lifting force.

Another episode of Engines of Ingenuity reports that the first use of balloons during war was by the French when its Revolutionary Army used them to locate enemy artillery troops in 1794.

In the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy used manned balloons for surveillance. The US Army Balloon Corps was founded in 1862.  Its “Chief Aëronaut,”  Thaddeus Lowe

had three balloons and what he described as an “aeronautic train, consisting of four army wagons and two gas generators.”

The two gas generators are shown in these photos, part of  the National Archives digital collection [“Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s Balloon Gas Generators. The U.S. Capitol in background, Washington, DC, circa 1861. ARC ID 512776]. 28-0467a

The second [ARC ID 525085], from the Archives’ collection of Mathew Brady’s work, shows a balloon being inflated using the generators. 05-0730aThese worked by adding sulphuric acid to water and iron filings, thus producing hydrogyn.  The Library of Congress supplies the third, a picture of Lowe transferring fuel from one balloon, the Constitution, to another, the Intrepid [LC-B811- 2349].01562r

Although the Balloon Corps didn’t survive the Civil War, balloons were used by the Americans, among other forces, for reconaissance in World War I. From the National Archives: “Close-up view of an American major in the basket of an observation balloon flying over territory near front lines” 06/1918 [ARC ID 530737] 28-0813aand “Returning from a U-Boat scouting party.  Aerial naval observer coming down from a ‘Blimp’ type balloon after a scouting tour somewhere on the Atlantic Coast” 1918 [ARC Identifier 533474]. 28-0815a

I wouldn’t guess that this was the routine way to exit a balloon, would you?


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