History of Fire Balloons, and Web Links

The original Fire Balloon, or Sky Lantern, was apparently invented in China, by Chu Ko Liang, who was born around 180 AD.  This means fire balloons were presumably invented around 200 AD.  Or around the Three Kingdoms Period.  When there was a lot of conflict and strife between the three kingdoms.  The sky lanterns were used for military communications.  Figure different combinations of balloons at different times communicated different messages.  Perhaps they includes flags or streamers too.  The Chinese were already highly skilled in semaphore and other communications.  So the fire balloons would have only been a small part of a much larger communications system.  Sky lanterns are still very popular in China.  Largely they seem to symbolize luck and hope, thankfulness and wishes and letting God help look after any of people's extra troubles.  Sky lanterns are also popular in Buddhist countries.  Apparently helping to form some type of imaginary light bridge between heaven and earth as a gesture of thankfulness to Buddha.

In more recent history fire balloons apparently helped China to colonize Taiwan from its local people.  This was hundreds of years ago.  Taiwan is very mountainous.  So the balloons came in handy for communications between the various groups of militia.  Sky lantern are still very popular in Taiwan.  On various holidays they fly them by the thousands.  There are a lot of videos of sky lanterns on YouTube.

One interesting piece of trivia is that the famous poet Percy Shelley (1792-1822) used to fly fire balloons.  In around 1812, when he was a student at Oxford he launched fire balloons over London, to protest English rule over Ireland.  Supposedly he attached some of his writings to the balloons.  Including his version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and his original work  The Devil's Walk   He also wrote a sonnet about campaign: To a Balloon, Laden with Knowledge. 

Percy Shelley died young.  In 1816 he married Mary Shelley (1897-1851).  That was The Year There Was No Summer.  Apparently due to a major volcano summer. That summer the Shelleys guested with Lord Byron and a group of others in Geneva.  That summer they sat around the fire in the fireplace making up stories. Lord Byron imagined The Vampyre, which went on to become the modern tale of Dracula.  Meanwhile Mary Shelley imagined Frankenstein.  Or The Modern Prometheus.  She was eighteen years old.  As she described it she saw - "the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with a uneasy, half vital motion." And - "What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. "

Plus by the ringleaders of a proposed revolution in India too, to signal the Nagpur India Revolt of 1857 - To try to overthrow the colonial government of the British East India Company.  But the plot went awry and the ringleaders got caught and apparently never got to fly their balloons.  "No revolution for you!"


The Mongolfier Brothers also invented the Fire Balloon, in November 1782.  It was three feet in diameter, made with silk, and held 35 cubic feet of air.  At first they flew it unpowered.  Later they suspended the fire in a frame at the bottom of the balloon, thereby inventing the fire balloon.   Note:  Keyword "balloon" will locate most of the references.

A year later, on November 21, 1783, the Montgolfiers launched the first manned balloon, in Paris.  The crowds included Marie Antoinette, the King, and nearly half a million people.  Ten days later, on December 1, 1783, Jacques Charles launched the first manned hydrogen balloon, also in Paris.  News of the manned balloon flights travelled fast, and astounded the world.   .

The first US balloon flight was attempted in 1784 in Philadelphia.  The pilot jumped out when the balloon crashed into a wall.  The balloon then climbed up, burned up, and dropped its stove through the roof of a nearby theatre.  The reference is in a footnote for a letter from  John Fitch, steamboat inventor,  to Thomas Jefferson, complaining about the balloon craze.

Traditional Paper Fire Balloons or Montgolfiers (In Italian)(Photographs) - ( 2 ) - ( 3 )( 4 )  have existed almost ever since, as a sort of "folk invention," in many parts of the world, especially during the 19th and early 20 Centuries.  Most were built by young people and hobbyists, for festivals and holidays. In the United States they were called Fourth of July Balloons.

Those days are gone.  There was always the risk of the balloons catching on fire and the fire plunging to the ground.  Nowday any type of fire balloon can be viewed as a potential hazard, and traditional paper fire balloons are no longer very common.  Plastic balloons don't generally catch on fire though, or fall. And candle powered balloons tend to blow out.

Paper fire balloons still fly, especially for Festival of Lights Celebrations in the Fall.  In the West, they are popular in Italy and in Latin America.  In the East, they are popular in Thailand - (2),  China,  Taiwan(2!) and Myanmar (Burma).   As example, in October or November, Buddha Returns from Heaven, and his path to earth is symbolically lighted, with fire balloons, candles and lanterns.

In Win Pe's poem Morning Moon  the evening moon is likened to a cool fire balloon, rising to pay homage to the Sacred Hare.  In the traditional Chinese fairy tale, The Peacock Maiden,  the heroine exclaims:  "I can see a fire balloon floating, but I cannot see the person who lit the fire!  I can see an embroidered love pouch in front of me, but, alas, where is he who dropped it!"

In her autobiography,  The First Forty Years 1902 - 1942,  Julie White tells how fleets of fire balloons used to fly over Peoria, Illinois, after the Fourth of July fireworks.  By the time of the Depression, the fire balloon tradition was gone.

In those days children knew about fire balloons.  In John Farrer's 1921 book  Songs for Parents, a song goes:  "If I were a little fire balloon, I'd float aloft to Mars, I'd pay a call on Venus, and chatter with the stars..."

   Nowdays paper fire balloons are mostly imaginary.  In Roald Dahl's children's book,  James and the Giant Peach wishes are attached to fire balloons.  Children still make paper balloons, for school projects, but do not generally attach fire.

In Elizabeth Bishop's poem  The Armadillo, a fire balloon crashes into a mountainside and lands on an owl's nest.  In Terry Marks' acrylic/collage, Deities with Fire Balloon  a fire balloon is attached to a string.

Historical References

Project Guttenberg has compiled a history of manned balloon flight, called  **The Dominion of the Air**.   References include the first English fire balloon, which was ten feet in diameter and flew for over 2 1/2 hours.  Also, the great Nassau Balloon aeronaut, Henry Coxwell (b.1819), flew his first fire balloon when he was nine years old.  Years later, probably in the 1860s, he commonly saw fire balloons fly over Kent, launched out of London Town, probably by college students.

In 1812, the poet  Percy Shelley  Oxford student, launched fire balloons over London to protest English rule over Ireland.  He attached his version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and his original work  The Devil's Walk   He also wrote a sonnet about campaign: To a Balloon, Laden with Knowledge.  People still sometimes fly Protest Balloons

In the Nagpur India Revolt of 1857, a fire balloon launch was supposed to signal the start of a plot to overthrow the Government of the British East India Company.  But the plot went awry, and the accused ringleaders were put to death.

During the Civil War, young Daniel Carter Beard  (b.1850) flew fire balloons. The Air War Over Virginia was a huge inspiration for boys.  They knew all about  Balloon Camp, the  Intrepid .. (-2-)  and the other balloons.  Beard later founded the Sons of Daniel Boone and the American Boy Scouts.  In 1892 he published the "American Boys Handy Book," with designs for "Fourth of July Balloons with New and Novel Attachments."  Other published designs were also available.

Other inspirations for boys included  Abraham Lincoln .. (-2-) ..George Armstrong Custer .. (-2-) .. (-3-) the  Ironclad Monitor  (-2-) .. (-3-).. Steamboats .. Locomotives .. (-2-) .. (-3-) .. (-4-). and  Steam Whistles in the night.  Forty years later boys attentions also turned to Airships and Airplanes.

In 1870-71, Paris was systematically surrounded, beseiged and cut-off by the German Army.  Important mail was sent by carrier pigeons and manned balloons.  Everyday mail was often sent by Unmanned "Air Mail" Balloons.  Here, fire balloons and coal gas balloons were launched out into the countryside.   Finders were promised a reward for delivering the mail pouches to a nearby mayor or post office.

In 1885, fire balloons flew in San Francisco, for the performance  Burial of Care -- Jinks at the Bohemian Club

In 1888, Oscar Wilde published a short story, The Remarkable Rocket, about the wedding of a king's son, from the point of view of the Rocket, the Fire Balloon, the Catherine Wheel and the other fireworks.  The Rocket is arrogant, so the Fire Balloon tells him:  "It is a most joyful occasion, and when I soar up into the air I intend to tell the stars all about it.  You will see them twinkle when I talk to them about the pretty bride."

In November 1896 people in the Northwest and Midwest saw mysterious lights in the sky.  Originally they were assumed to be fire balloons.  Soon claims were made that they were  great airships.   The Great Election of 1896 had just ended.  The Gold Balloon of William McKinley had just defeated the  Silver Balloon  of William Jennings Bryan.

By the time of the Depression, traditional paper fire balloons were probably getting to be fairly rare.  But people knew what they were.  When the Hindenberg went down in 1937 a witness said it landed like a "fire balloon on the Fourth of July."

In February 1942, what looked like a huge fire balloon, plus other objects, flew over Los Angeles.  Air Raid Marshals blacked-out the city.  1440 anti-aircraft shells, plus tracers, were fired at the objects.  None were shot down.  The alert came to be called The Battle of Los Angeles. ..  (-2-)   Some witnesses said they saw chainlike strings of flashing red and white flares, in groups of three, with the whole apparatus looking somewhat like an illuminated kite.  ( Keyword: kite )

Most likely balloons were launched off a submarine, to test the US Coastal Air Defense.   Several years later Japan launched huge paper  "Fugo Balloons" - (2)(3), to bomb the US from Japan.  Japan had extensive experience building and flying military balloons. .. (-2)   Some of the technology was apparently later used to design the famous Mogul Balloon.

In every theatre of World War II, strange unidentified lights appeared in the sky, followed planes and did acrobatics.  They were called Foo Fighters, after cartoon character  Smokey Stover  who declared  "Where there's foo there's fire."   Apparently the word "foo" is a play on the French word "fou," for fool, which is an especially bad trait to have in wartime.  Many Foo Fighters were mirages, caused by Venus, fires, smoke and airplanes.  Others were reflections off cockpit glass.

American GIs apparently flew fire balloons too.  French Resistance fighers  probably flew paper fire balloons, possibly for signalling, and to draw ground fire and confuse the enemy.  In the Pacific, some of the Foo Fighters may have been flares attached to hydrogen balloons, ie. a paper air force, intended to make the Americans think there were Japanese aircraft in the sky.

Since the 1960s many people have been making fire balloons with dry cleaner bags, or with homemade plastic bags.  Oftentimes these balloons are interpreted as UFOs.  Larry Robinson gives a good description of what homemade fire balloons can look like to onlookers, and de-bunks lists of sightings on his  UFO Homepage .



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