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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Almanac/Hot Air Balloon

Air Date: Week of August 2, 2002

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This week, we have facts about hot air balloons. It was 293 years ago that the first prototype took off and set fire to the drapes in King John V's chambers.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER: "AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS" SOUNDTRACK, WEB]

CURWOOD: Everyone knows hot air rises. But 293 years ago this week, Bartolomeo de Gusmao demonstrated that objects can go up with it. The Brazilian priest and inventor was showing off the first prototype of a hot air balloon to no other than Portugal’s King John V.

During a court audience, he told the king that straw fire would lift a small half globe of paper to the ceiling of the king’s royal chamber. De Gusmao’s contraption took off, all right, but disaster was barely averted when the balloon drifted off and set fire to drapes and furniture. Nevertheless, humanity’s dream of flight had literally left the drawing board.

Today’s long distance balloons rely upon both helium and regular hot air that are contained in different compartments within the conical-shaped structures. Adventurers have reached altitudes of over four times the height of Mt. Everest in these heavy-duty balloons.

And just last month, Steve Fossett became the first person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe. Now consider that materials like ultra-light Mylar and carbon alloys didn’t exist in the 18th century. And you can see that it was far from easy for two French brothers, Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etiene Montgolfier, to launch the world’s first aeronauts in 1782.

King Louis XVI and 130,000 onlookers oohed and ahhed outside the palace at Versailles as they watched a very startled sheep, duck and rooster rise 1500 feet in the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon made of linen. The airborne menagerie landed safely eight minutes later and two miles away. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

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