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Night departure of a balloon during the Siege of Paris, 1870

Night departure of a balloon during the Siege of Paris, 1870.

During the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, balloons were manufactured within railroad stations in Paris

During the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, balloons were manufactured within railroad stations in Paris. The balloons were used to get mail and passengers out of Paris.

During the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902, a balloon is used to watch for the Boers

During the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902, a balloon is used to watch for the Boers.

Military Use of Balloons in the Mid- and Late Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, the military used balloons for three purposes. One was for aerial bombing of military targets. The second was for aerial reconnaissance by captive balloons. The third was for communications and to transport personnel, mail, and equipment.

The first aerial bombing was attempted in 1849 when the Austrians launched 200 pilotless, bomb-carrying hot-air balloons against forces defending Venice. Each bomb was released by a time fuse. However, the wind sent the balloons back over the Austrian troops. This idea was abandoned until the Japanese revived it in World War II.

In France and Austria, there was a brief attempt to use air-filled balloons (Montgolfiéres) during the Italian campaign of 1859, but the results were unsuccessful because the balloons would not stay aloft long enough.

Improved versions of balloons were used for bombing in various colonial military campaigns, such as in the French capture of Dien Bien Phu near the Vietnam-Laos border in 1884. In the early twentieth century, the Japanese used balloons against Russian forces in Manchuria in 1904-1905, as did the Italians in Tripoli in 1911-1912. This use of balloons for bombing by the Japanese and Italians violated the 1899 Hague Peace Conference that banned the "discharge of any ...explosive from balloons."

The wartime use of balloons for bombing continued into modern times. Zeppelins were effectively used during World War I. During World War II, the Japanese turned the balloon into the first intercontinental strategic weapons delivery system when they sent about 9,000 hydrogen-filled balloons to the West Coast of the United States.

The second use of balloons by the military was for aerial reconnaissance, which began during the Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. military first used balloons during the American Civil War.

Possibly the most dramatic use of balloons in the war in Europe took place in September 1870 during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. When Paris became completely surrounded by the Prussians, French aeronauts suggested to the head of the Post Office that balloons should be used to communicate with the outside world and with the provisional government at Tours. The Post Office accepted the suggestion, and on September 23, the professional aeronaut Jules Durouf departed from the Place St. Pierre in Montmartre in Le Neptune with 227 pounds (103 kilograms) of mail. He landed his balloon safely three hours and fifteen minutes later behind enemy lines at the Chateau de Craconville. On his way, Durouf dropped visiting cards on the enemy position as he flew above the reach of enemy guns.

Due to the direction of the winds and the fact that balloons could not really be steered, the stream of balloons went in only one direction—out of Paris. So, a later balloon, La Ville de Florence, transported carrier pigeons as well as mail. The pigeons were used by the French to carry messages back into Paris.

Since the balloons did not make their way back to Paris, the French needed more and more balloons and began a flurry of balloon building. These new balloons were built with cheap materials and were often piloted by inexperienced aeronauts. Originating from the temporarily empty railroad stations and yards, they ferried people, as well as mail and pigeons out of Paris. Some were barely able to reach a safe landing away from enemy lines. On October 7, 1870, the minister of the new French government, Léon Gambetta, made a dramatic escape from Paris by balloon, and with his chief assistant, Charles Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, established a provisional capital in the city of Tours.

Because the Prussians were reputed to have a special anti-aircraft gun, the French authorities ruled that, starting in mid-November 1870, balloons must leave Paris only by night. This added new hazards for the inexperienced aeronauts. Balloons could not be controlled, and they landed at unexpected locations, sometimes with fatal results when they landed in enemy territory. On one flight, two aeronauts became lost and drifted 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) to Norway. Two other balloons were lost without a trace.

Altogether, a total of 66 balloons left Paris during the siege, and 58 landed safely. They carried some 102 people, more than 500 pigeons, and five dogs, which were supposed to return to Paris carrying microfilm but who never reappeared. The balloons also delivered more than two million pieces of mail as far away as Tours, 125 miles (201 kilometers) to the southwest of Paris.

The war contributions of the aeronauts led to the formation, in 1874, of a "Commission des Communications Aeriennnes." On its recommendation, a military aeronautical establishment was set up in 1877 under the direction of Charles and Paul Renard. This organization has continued to exist into modern times.

Other countries followed France's example. Germany organized a Balloon Corps in 1884, and Austria followed in 1893. Russia soon opened a school for aeronautical training near St. Petersburg.

In Great Britain, two officers, Captain F. Beaumont, who had served with Thaddeus Lowe's Balloon Corps in the American Civil War, and Captain G.E. Grover tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British military to recognize the military value of balloons. But the first British military balloon was not used until Captain J.L.B. Templer, an amateur aeronaut, brought his own balloon, the Crusader, to Woolwich Arsenal in 1879 along with another balloon, the Pioneer. The British began military balloon training in 1880. Members of the balloon corps were trained in free flight as well as in observations from a tethered balloon in case the tethered balloon broke away from its cables. Templer almost died in one of these free flights when the weather deteriorated, and a Member of Parliament who was on the flight did die.

During this time, Templer and his associates realized that a new way of storing the hydrogen gas that filled the balloons was needed because generating the gas near the battlefield was too cumbersome and slow. Compressed cylinders for the gas were suggested, and when the problem of a gas-tight valve was solved, the cylinders came into use both in Britain and in other countries. Storage pressures increased rapidly and, by 1890, the French claimed they could inflate a small balloon in 15 minutes.

Templer also recognized the need for a lighter and more impervious balloon fabric. He found a London family who had been using goldbeaters' skins (the outer layer of the intestines of an ox used by goldsmiths) for toy balloons and hired them to provide fabric to the British government. By the end of 1883, they had produced their first balloon that could lift one observer to a useful height. The balloon, the 10,000-cubic-foot (283-cubic-meter) Heron, served in South Africa.

The advances in balloon technology impressed the British military, which moved the Balloon Section to larger quarters and included it in British Army establishments. They increased the number of balloon sections, and four balloon sections participated in the South African War at the end of the nineteenth century. 


Ege, Lennart A. T. Balloons and Airships. Editor of the English edition, Kenneth Munson from translation by Erik Hildesheim. New York: Macmillan. 1974

Gibbs-Smith, C.H. History of Flying. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1954.

Gibbs-Smith, C.H. Flight Through the Ages. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc. 1974.

Jackson, Donald D. and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Aeronauts. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Macmillan, Norman. Great Flights and Air Adventures, From Balloons to Spacecraft. London: G. Bell, 1964.

Rolt, L.T.C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning - 1783-1903. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.

Educational Organization

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.