A Balloon Adventure

One of the interesting aspects of balloon travel is how long ago in history that ballooning had taken place. This science has a rich history and you’ll find the amazing story in this article quite interesting.

National Balloon Museum

national balloon museum
National Balloon Museum, Indianola Iowa

One of the best venues in the U.S. to learn about ballooning and it’s colorful history is the National Balloon Museum located at 1601 N Jefferson Way  Indianola, Iowa. Learn about over 200 years of ballooning. The National Balloon Museum provides the public with a complete understanding of ballooning and its history through its exhibitions and collections. Were you aware that ballooning goes all the way back to the year 220 A.D. ? Did you also know that most historians credit the Chinese as being the first balloonists?

There is a big reason why this excellent museum is located in central Iowa. Central Iowa has always been thought of as ideal for ballooning. A good many balloonists live in this area. Indianola Iowa was the home of the Balloon Federation of America’s National Hot Air Balloon Championships, and currently is the home of the National Balloon Classic which is a nine day event. The museum is also the venue for the annual US Ballooning Hall of Fame.

early balloon travel
Early 1800’s balloon designs

Following is an amazing story regarding the earlier days of ballooning and the impact it had on the Siege of Paris during late 1870 and early 1871. This story is a balloon adventure like no other.

The Siege of Paris

Balloon adventures in Europe were not something new. Experiments to improve ballooning were progressing steadily.

The way balloons were used during the Siege of Paris France however is a very unique story.

The Siege of Paris took place as a result of the Prussians winning the Franco Prussian War in 1870. The French were defeated largely due to the superior weaponry of the Prussians.

The problem developed when French citizens of Paris became incensed with the thought that their leaders surrendered. What enfolded was both a pride and a political issue. Interestingly, the city was blockaded by leftists who normally were not pro military but in this case wanted the French military to be more aggressive.

The two reasons for the barricade, and many times referred to as the “Paris Commune“, was to prevent the Prussians from entering Paris and also to take over the then current right wing government . There was quite a lot of bloodshed along with a succession of meetings between the two sides (French government and the commune leaders)) and quite a few changes of local leadership.

paris balloons
Illustraion of balloon ascending Paris in 1783

The siege lasted from September 1870 to the end of January 1871. The Prussians finally became frustrated with the barricades and fired some 12,000 shells which resulted in about 400 deaths. In the meantime the French government leaders had fled to Versailles. The Prussians were pressuring the French command to end the siege which was somewhat out of their control. Essentially, the French government at the time was caught between the Prussians and the leaders of the commune. As can be imagined, with a standoff lasting this long, food shortages became a big problem. At one point the Paris Zoo was emptied of it’s inhabitants to supply food to the starving Parisians source although that source wasn’t nearly enough.

Balloons to the Rescue

During the siege, the Parisians had used balloons to try to communicate with the outside world. There was no other way at the time. The Prussians were outside every city gate.

One idea was to send out carrier pigeons on the balloons and then have them fly back to Paris with messages. Balloons are a one way craft, especially in the case of Paris at this time. Pigeons were necessary to bring communications back to Paris.

civil war balloons
Illustration of Civil War Balloon Corp balloon during American Civil War

The balloon venture actually resulted in an aerial post office system. During the four months that the siege took place about 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by the pigeon post. Letters and other communications were photographically reduced in size to permit higher volume. Letters carried out by balloon cost 20 cents per letter.

Needless to say, the balloons could be diverted easily due to winds and during the siege an unplanned “world distance record” was set. One balloon carrying two individuals left Paris, became lost and eventually ended up in the snow in Norway. The passengers seeing water initially thought they were hopelessly lost over the Atlantic but as it turned out they were really over the North Sea on their way north to Scandinavia.

The successful balloon ascensions out of Paris were frustrating for the Prussians. The balloons were flammable (coal gas and hydrogen) and the Prussian sharpshooters tried to bring them down. Theoretically, a single shot could be capable of bringing a balloon down because of the flammable gases. However, because the sharpshooters were not successful the Krupp company developed a special weapon to fire on the balloons. That weapon too proved to be ineffective.

In a tactic to fool the Prussian Cavalry, the Paris balloonists started night ascensions. Ascending at night did add danger to an already dangerous exploit however the French were successful. Hopefully for the balloonists by daylight the balloon would be long gone.

It’s interesting to note that the Paris balloons were used entirely as a means of communicating and not in any type of offensive operation. Since the Prussians had the city surrounded with an overwhelming force it’s doubtful that any offense, especially via balloons, would have succeeded.

hot air balloons ascending
Three modern hot air balloons getting ready to ascend in Florida

During this time the world, especially Europe, was captivated by what was going on in Paris and the balloon communications became quite a newsworthy event. News of the  situation the Parisians were in was successfully carried out by the balloons. This worked to build public sentiment on the side of the Parisians. The Prussians were coming under heavy diplomatic attack throughout Europe for the Paris siege. The Franco Prussian War had gone on long enough for both sides. It was time for both the siege and the Commune to end.

The links below are to additional Trips Into History articles you may find interesting:

Japanese Balloon Bombs of World War Two.

Airships of the California Gold Rush

Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane

The End of the Siege

The siege was over when the Paris Commune finally surrendered in late January of 1871. Rather than stationing a garrison inside Paris, in mid February 1871, the Prussians did a brief victory march into Paris and withdrew to the east. When war indemnities were finally agreed upon the Prussians withdrew from France altogether. During the Siege there were a total of 65 to 66 balloons launched from Paris with an impressive number of 57 making it successfully out to the distant provinces. Viewing today’s hot air balloons is a colorful spectacle and the history of manned ballooning is quite colorful as well.

(All images from public domain)