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10 Strange Facts About Hot Air Balloons

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You think the Wright Brothers were impressive? Hot air balloons were carrying people through the air almost a century before the Wright Brothers were even born. Here are some oddities from the oldest form of human flight. 

1. A rooster, a duck, and a sheep were the first hot air balloon passengers.

In 1783, the first hot air balloon was set to fly over the heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court in Versailles. Like monkeys in space, this odd assortment of animals was chosen to test the effects of flight. Sheep, thought to be similar to people, would show the effects of altitude on a land dweller, while ducks and roosters, which could already fly (albeit at different heights), would act as controls in the experiment. The balloon flew on a tether for 8 minutes, rising 1500 feet into the air and traveling 2 miles before being brought safely to the ground. The animals were unharmed. 

2. The first pilots were almost condemned criminals.

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When it came time to choose a pilot for the first hot air balloon flight, Louis XVI didn’t want to be responsible for potential fatalities, so he figured: Hey, condemned criminals are going to die anyway, let’s have them fly the balloon. Luckily, he was talked out of the idea. Instead, scientist Jean-François Pilâtre De Rozier (above) and aristocrat François Laurent d’Arlandes were chosen to fly the balloon. On November 21, 1783, the men flew for 20 minutes, becoming the first people to experience sustained flight.

3. The first pilot was also the first air crash victim.

Following the flight, Rozier became the Charles Lindbergh of his day. Two years later, he decided to break another record by crossing the English Channel in a new kind of balloon, one that was half hot air, half hydrogen. Sadly, 30 minutes after taking off, the balloon exploded. Rozier and his co-pilot were killed, giving him an unfortunate new record: the first person to fly in a balloon, and the first person to die in one.

4. Champagne after flight originated to appease farmers.

As hot air balloons became a fad, French aristocracy soon learned that local farmers didn’t much like rich people setting balloons down on their land. The aristocracy said the peasants were afraid because they thought the balloons looked like dragons, but while the smoke that powered early balloons may have appeared dragon-like, it seems more likely that the farmers didn’t want hot air balloons crushing their crops. In any case, champagne smoothed things over, and a tradition was born.

5. Some believe the Nazca Lines were made with hot air balloons.

Wikimedia Commons

This theory was put forth in the 1970s by Jim Woodman, who said that ancient Peruvians drew the giant figures in the Nazca desert with the help of hot air balloons. Woodman referenced ancient pottery that he thought depicted ballooning, as well as fabric fragments that could have been used as a balloon’s envelope. He even went so far as to make his own balloon using only the resources that would have been available to ancient Peruvians. The theory has been largely discredited, but some still believe balloons had something to do with the Nazca lines. 

6. There was even a balloon duel.

In 1808, two Frenchmen found themselves in a love-triangle with Mademoiselle Tirevit, a celebrated opera dancer, and took to the skies above Paris for a duel. While a crowd gathered below to watch what they thought was a balloon race, the men pulled out blunderbusses and aimed at each other’s balloons. Two shots were fired. One balloon was punctured and crashed to the buildings below, killing its occupants. The other man descended to the ground unharmed, and presumably gained Tirevit’s hand.

7. Hot air balloons were used for war reconnaissance.

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In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus in the French Revolution, a balloon called Entreprenant was flown for aerial observation to suss out enemy positions during combat. The balloon, which was tethered, flew for 9 hours. During this time, the aeronaut wrote down the movement of Austrian troops and dropped the dispatches to the ground. It’s unclear whether the dispatches helped all that much—the generals were tactfully quiet on the matter—but the French did win the battle.

8. The Civil War had a Balloon Corps.

Established by Abraham Lincoln, the Balloon Corps had seven balloons, at least 12 gas generators, and a flat-top balloon barge that used to be an old steamboat. The balloons, which had names like Intrepid, were used to spy on enemy movement from as far as 15 miles away. Not to be outdone, the Confederates made their own balloon—out of fine dress silk—that was eventually captured by the Union army. The Balloon Corps disbanded in 1863, as it turns out that giant balloons make good targets to shoot at during combat.

9. Smoke balloons were crazy carnival attractions. 

From the 1800s to the 1900s, traveling fairs often featured a daredevil show involving smoke balloons. A stuntman wearing a parachute was attached to a basket-less balloon, which was then held over a fire until very hot. The balloon was released and shot into the air, dragging the stuntman up with it. When the balloon reached the highest point, the stuntman detached, opened the parachute, and descended to the ground again, much to the delight of the crowd below. 

10. Someone invented a glass-bottom balloon.

Imagine floating thousands of feet above the earth with nothing between you and the ground but glass. This is what passengers experienced when Christian Brown debuted his glass-bottom hot air balloon at the 2010 Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. Brown told the British press the flight was “terrifying” and trial flights had ended “with passengers shrieking and screaming in fear.” There’s talk of opening the glass-bottom balloon to the public. Sound fun?

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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