“The Moon's a Balloon”: Hot Air Balloons and Airships in Speculative Fiction
People have always dreamed of flight. With the invention of the hot air balloon (specifically, the Montgolfier balloon, which is essentially the same design one might see at hot air balloon festivals today) this dream became a possibility for a startling variety of people—aristocrats and scientists, entertainers and artists, men and women. The popularity of hot air balloons and their offspring, dirigibles, left a permanent mark on speculative fiction from their first appearance in the skies through the modern era.
For modern Europe and America, hot air ballooning became a craze when the Montgolfier brothers (Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne) created a balloon that utilized a large envelope made from silk (specifically, taffeta) with an optional attached basket. The Montgolfier envelope was a bag that looked like an inverted teardrop with an opening at the bottom. Modern balloons can have any envelope shape, but the classic Montgolfier teardrop shape is still the most popular. To this day, most recreational balloons have the same three parts as the first Montgolfier balloons, albeit using different materials—the envelope, the basket, and the burner, which heats the air that inflates the balloon and causes it to rise.
On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfiers sent up a balloon manned by a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The balloon and its passengers landed safely, so on October 15, 1783, they sent up chemistry and physics teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier on a tethered flight. On November 21, the first manned untethered flight took off (crewed by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes). Balloonmania was on, and scientists, artists, and the general public remained fascinated by balloons well through the Victorian era.
People in Regency Europe, especially in France and England, were captivated by hot air balloons. Once people learned how a hot air balloon worked, many people built their own balloons and gave exhibition flights at fairs and other events, often using highly flammable hydrogen gas for fuel. Balloons filled with hydrogen or helium are “gas” rather than “hot air” balloons, but colloquially they are usually called “hot air balloons,” and I will continue to do so despite the technical inaccuracy.
Scientists explored the skies, adventurers set travel records, and entertainers captivated crowds by jumping out of balloons and parachuting to the ground. For a time, clothing, hairstyles, and anything that could be painted were modeled after or decorated with balloons. Naturally, ballooning sailed into literature as well, and continued to be a craze well past the Victorian period.
Ballooning was popular largely because it was rare enough to be exciting and common enough to be just barely accessible—not only to aristocrats and to men—but also to working-class men and women. Exhibition ballooning quickly became a feature at county fairs, where not only could huge audiences see the balloon launch, but also a working-class person stood a chance of buying, winning, or volunteering for a ride. A working-class family could even put together enough capital to build their own balloon and stage exhibition flights for income. It took less than a year for the first woman to go in an untethered balloon (Élisabeth Thible) and countless women followed, as passengers, pilots, and parachutists.
Balloonists wrote accounts of their travels that were both scientific and adventurous, poetic and factual. Perhaps the first work of prose fiction about ballooning was a lovely work of fantasy written by 1802 by Jeanne-Geneviève Labrosse. She was the first woman to jump from a balloon and descend by parachute. As part of her act, she sometimes tossed her cat out of the balloon with a parachute as well. In response to concerned cat lovers, Madame Garnerin’s cat sent a letter to the press describing his intense love of parachuting. This was only natural, since he had, he stated, “been nursed in the very bosom of aerostation.”
Meanwhile, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “To a Balloon” and created his own sky lanterns, which bore copies of his essay the “Declaration of Rights.” Scientists and poets alike, including Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Victor Hugo, wrote of the possibilities of ballooning with a breadth of imagination that bridged the gap between science, scientific romance, and science fiction. The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, first written by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785, had several editions, translators, and publishers, each of whom added more and more adventures. In the versions published between 1809 and 1895, the Baron had all manner of balloon-related adventures, including lifting and relocating buildings for his amusement.
As the Regency era transformed into the Victorian, writers used the concept of hot air ballooning to suggest new possibilities in travel, war, science, and adventure. In the tangled world of publishing, many authors played with similar ideas about balloon travel, some more than once. Edgar Allan Poe published a short story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” about a man who travels to the moon in a balloon. Subsequently, Poe’s publisher allegedly plagiarized Poe’s story for his own story, “The Great Moon Hoax.” Poe raised the stakes by launching “The Balloon-Hoax,” in which he convinced readers of The New York Sun that a fictional character named Monck Mason traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in only three days.
Jules Verne borrowed many elements from Poe and referred to “The Balloon-Hoax” in his own book, From the Earth to the Moon. He also turned to a hot air balloon as the main means of conveyance for Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, A Journey of Discovery by Three Englishmen in Africa. This book, though only barely science fiction (the balloon is altered so that it can make long voyages), set the tone for Verne’s subsequent Extraordinary Voyages books.
Incidentally, Verne’s traveler Phileas Fogg does NOT use a hot air balloon in the book version of Around the World in Eighty Days. In the novel, Fogg travels by rail, boats (mostly steamers), an elephant, and a wind-powered sledge. The balloon was introduced to the story by the 1956 film adaptation and became so popular that it is the first thing most people think of when they hear the book’s title!
Balloon pilots use their knowledge of air currents for navigation, and skilled pilots can catch different wind currents with surprising precision. However, balloons do not have steering mechanisms. Ballooning changed radically in the 1950s when Ed Yost discovered that balloons could carry their own fuel. Previously, balloons were tethered and the air inside heated, then the balloon was released. The balloon could descend by letting the heated air out, but once that heated air was gone, it could not be replaced until the balloon landed. Yost used kerosene and then propane to heat the air while in flight. Should you go on a recreational balloon flight, the balloon will most likely have a propane burner on board, which allows balloons to descend and then reascend, which allows for longer flights.
Hot air balloons were eclipsed by airplanes after the Wright Brothers’ flight in 1903. However, it was by no means settled that the future of the air would belong to airplanes. Dirigibles (often called airships) consisted of an envelope, sometimes with a metal frame inside the envelope, along with passenger and/or cargo compartments and an engine and steering mechanisms. They were able to rise into the sky by using hydrogen or helium gasses.
The most famous dirigibles were built by the Zeppelin company in Germany. Their aircraft were, conveniently, called “Zeppelins,” and sometimes the word was and is used to describe any dirigible with a rigid framework. German Zeppelins bombed Paris and London in WWI. After WWI, passengers took luxurious flights around Europe and from Europe to America aboard the craft. The Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the globe in 1929. Beginning in 1933, Hitler turned the German dirigibles into a symbol of rising Nazi power. The golden age of Zeppelins and dirigibles ended with the famous Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937.
Thanks to the steampunk genre, dirigibles thrive in literature today. Inspired by Victorian writers H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, steampunk explores the possibilities of alternate histories in which Victorian fashion prevails, steam as an energy source was not replaced by electricity or gasoline, and dirigibles rule the sky.
It’s difficult to find any steampunk that DOESN’T feature dirigibles, but a few that do demand special mention. In real history, the Union used hot air balloons to spy on the Confederates. In Cherie Priest’s Clementine, dirigibles carry troops, supplies, and spies in a version of the American Civil War that seems unending. The Guns Above, by Robyn Bennis, fictionalizes the Crimean War, pitting fictional countries against each other with dirigibles battling ground forces as well as each other. This book is notable for its attention to technical detail and realism within an alternate history framework.
The His Dark Materials series, by Philip Pullman, uses airships not only for practical purposes, but to reveal class and character. While the rich travel in dirigibles with luxury and precision, drifting and scrappy Lee Scoresby scrapes up a living with the hot air balloon he won in a poker game. Similarly, Gail Carriger’s Finishing Schoolseries uses airships to denote the function and social class of its characters. It is set in an alternate-history Victorian school that is located in a dirigible. The mobile quality of the school allows its unusual students to participate in a large array of social functions as well as espionage and assassination activities. Teachers and their posh students live on the higher levels of an airship, but heroine Sophronia quickly explores the lower levels and makes friends with the laborers who work and live there.
No discussion of hot air ballooning in literature can be complete without a mention of the childhood classic, The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, first published in 1947. In this book, balloons both hearken back to a pre-WWII way of life and forward to one of space age invention.
The story is narrated by Professor William Sherman, who builds a balloon with the hope of spending time away from all other people. He crash lands on Krakatoa only a few days before the famous 1883 explosion, where he discovers a secret community of Americans who live in immense comfort and cooperation due to their discovery of diamond mines.
The imagery of life on Krakatoa Island, where the books’ characters reside, is redolent of colonialism, without the ethical violations of real colonialism, since the characters live on a previously uninhabited and unowned island. The lifestyle and manners of the characters are similar to those of the Edwardian upper class, but without the snobbery, as most of these characters are working-class people. The narrator’s balloon allows him to travel to a dreamy, pure, languorous existence.
Yet, the inhabitants of Krakatoa delight in invention, especially in experimenting with electricity. And their clever, innovative balloon platform is what allows them to survive the events of the novel, bearing them inexorably into modern life. This tension between leisure and rush, a nostalgia for the past and a push for cutting edge technology, is typical of the history and the present reality of ballooning, which is currently split between gentle recreation and daring feats in the stratosphere.
Today the fictions and adventures of ballooning continue unabated. No one has traveled to the moon in a balloon, but people have traveled to and parachuted from the stratosphere, and a joint project of NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) hopes to send a balloon to explore Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Balloon hoaxes are still a thing, as seen in the case of the “Balloon Boy” hoax of 2009, in which a family claimed to have accidentally sent their young son up in a balloon. (He was found hiding in his own attic after a long and extensive search.) Even cats are still taking part in ballooning and parachuting in both factual instances and a wide variety of Internet hoaxes.
I had the opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride in Napa, California in the early summer of 2020, and I can truly say I’ve never experienced anything like it. I felt safe in a way I have never felt before. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I cannot explain why the sensation of flight in a basket should be so thrilling, yet totally devoid of terror. I can only say that when the ride ended, all I wanted was to do it again. It is no surprise to me that these craft and their airship cousins thrive in the world of speculative fiction. The basket of a balloon in flight is a place where poetry and science, fate and decision, adventure and peacefulness meet.