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History & milestones of balloons

From birthdays to New Year's Eve, almost every celebration involves balloons. But have you ever wondered how balloons came to be?

 

A balloon is a thin, flexible bag that can be inflated. Commonly made out of rubber latex or aluminised plastic, party balloons come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours and are used for entertainment or decorative purposes. However, balloons are not exclusive to the party industry; they can be found in a range of diverse industries, including medicine, meteorology, the military and transportation. More recently, balloons have been used to enable data transmission in countries where no broadband exists.

 

There is sometimes confusion between toy balloons and sky lanterns, with the two often classed in the same category. However, toy balloons are not sky lanterns, which are made out of paper stretched over a wire frame and require a flame in order to float.

 

Etymology

 

The word 'balloon' has various origins. 'Ball' or 'large ball' is translated into 'ballon' in French and 'balla' in German. The North Italians called a 'ball shaped bundle' a 'balla', whilst Proto-Indo-European 'bhel' means 'to blow, swell, inflate'.

 

It is also possible that 'ballon' originated from the Latin word 'ballone.'

 

Origins

 

The rubber balloon was invented in 1824 by Professor Michael Faraday, to be used in his hydrogen experiments at the Royal Institution in London. Faraday made them by cutting two sheets of tacky rubber and pressing the edges together to seal them. The inside was then rubbed with flour to stop the sheets sticking together. A year later, rubber manufacturer Thomas Hancock introduced rubber latex balloons to the market, patenting the process for pouring rubber over moulds or dipping moulds into latex liquid in 1830. In 1847 J.G Ingram of London began manufacturing what we now regard as the prototype modern toy balloons – made out of vulcanised latex rubber extracted from trees, which are unaffected by temperature.

 

The first modern latex balloon was created by Neil Tillotson, who sold 15 'Tilly Cat' balloons in the shape of a cat's head for the 1931 Patriot's Day parade in Massachusetts. In the same decade, manufacturers were able to mass produce latex balloons, creating different colours and shapes and printing slogans. This was aided by the development of a method of retarding the coagulation of liquid latex, which meant that it could be transported around the world without degrading.

 

In the late 30s and early 40s, people discovered that they were able to twist and shape balloons and so balloon modelling was born.

 

During the 1970s, advances in technology led to the advent of foil balloons – thin, non-stretchable aluminised plastic film balloons that are far better at holding their shape without distorting, float longer when filled with helium gas and can be printed with complicated colour graphics.

 

However, balloons had made an appearance far earlier than the 1800's; variations have been noted centuries before. In fact, animals played a large – and unfortunate part – in the history of balloons.

The Aztecs (1300 to 1521) created balloon sculptures out of cat intestines to present to their gods as a sacrifice.

 

“The bowels were carefully cleaned, turned inside out, and sewn with a special vegetable thread whose main property was that it stuck to itself when left to dry in the sun, and this produced an almost airtight seal.

 

“The bowels were then twisted and air was blown into them after each twist. When a particularly contagious disease exterminated most of the cats, they used the bowels of the corpses, and when these grew in short supply, human sacrifices were offered to the gods for the sole purpose of obtaining fresh bowels.” Great Balloons! The Complete Book of Balloon Sculpting by Jean Merlin, Kaufman and Greenberg, 1994)

 

Italian polymath Galileo (1564-1642) used an inflated pig's bladder during an experiment to measure the weight of air. Classic novels Swiss Family Robinson (1813) and Moby Dick (1813) both made reference to balloons made of whale intestine.

 

“Papa,” said Jack, “can't you make me a balloon with this piece of whale entrail?” (Swiss Family Robinson)

 

In the late 18th Century, two paper makers called Jacques and Joseph Montfolfier discovered that paper bags that are filled with air rise. Having experimented with different materials such as paper, cloth and silk, in June 1783 they held a public demonstration of their 35' lighter-than-air balloon made out of cloth lined with paper.

Natural latex is tapped from rubber trees, Hevea Brasiliensis, which made commercial production of balloons possible.

History infographic

Balloon moulds being dipped into liquid latex for manufacturing