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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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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