All you need to know about balloons
Origins of the word balloon
The word balloon was originally derived from the French word ballon, meaning large ball. This was in turn probably derived from the latin ballone, or possibly from the old German word balla, meaning ball. Other related words include the Middle English bal, which was probably from the Old English beall, both meaning ball.
History of balloons
Early balloons were made out of animal bladders and intestines (yuk!) and often used by jesters who would manipulate them into amusing shapes for entertainment. Galileo also inflated a pig's bladder in an experiment to measure the weight of air.
Modern balloons can be made from materials such as rubber, latex or plastic and some use metallic coatings for added shine.
The first rubber balloons called "caoutchoucs" were invented by Michael Faraday in 1824 and used in his experiments with hydrogen. He made his balloons simply by cutting out two sheets of rubber, placing them on top of each other and pressing the edges together. The sticky rubber welded automatically and he rubbed the inside of the balloon with flour to prevent the opposing surfaces joining together.
Today's more familiar latex balloons, made from a highly flexible substance extracted from plants, were first manufactured in London in 1847, by J.G. Ingram, but it was only in the 1930s that we started to mass produce latex balloons.
Beginning in the late 1970s, some more expensive (and longer-lasting) foil balloons have been made of thin, un-stretchable, less permeable aluminised plastic films, which keep the helium gas from escaping for several days.
Foil balloons are also light weight which increases buoyancy.
Foil balloons are not elastic like rubber balloons, so when detailed and colourful pictures are printed on their surfaces, they do not become distorted when the balloon is inflated.
Important: it's worthwhile noting that metallic or foil balloons can cause short circuits when caught in overhead power lines and should never be released in the environment.
Initially hydrogen was used to make balloons float. However, it easily explodes and is highly flammable so understandably it was used mainly for scientific experiments.
Hydrogen was eventually replaced by helium. Helium is a non-toxic, non flammable, inert gas that occurs naturally in the air we breathe and is also found underground. It is still very light with 92.64% of the lifting power of hydrogen.
Although it is considered a safe gas, it should never be inhaled intentionally as it can cause suffocation.
Increased safety, due to the use of helium however, meant that it was now possible to use balloons in new ways.
When latex balloons are filled with helium they typically retain their buoyancy for only a day or so. The helium gas escapes through small pores in the latex which are larger than the helium atoms. You can treat latex balloons with a hi-float gel that makes them less porous and helps to keep the helium in the balloon.
Latex balloons filled with air usually hold their size and shape much longer.
Foil and plastic balloons are less permeable and can float for anything from 5 days to 5 weeks depending on their size and the material used for manufacture.
Balloons are not just for fun
Balloons' properties, including their low density and relatively low cost, have led to a wide range of applications. While some balloons are purely decorative, others are used for specific purposes such as meteorology, medical treatment, military defence, or transportation.
For instance, on the 18th of September 2006 three Cambridge University Engineering students made the headlines after they successfully sent a camera to the edge of space for less than £1000 using a helium balloon.
They simply attached the tiny camera to a helium balloon, which flew to nearly four times the height of Everest. Throughout the flight it took more than 800 images showing the curvature of the earth.
As the large helium balloon rose it expanded and exactly two hours after lift-off, at an altitude of 32.2km (20 miles) above sea level, it burst, releasing the camera which was brought back to earth by parachute.
Don't try this at home...
In 1982, a man with no experience in ballooning or aviation, attached 40 helium-filled balloons to a garden chair hoping to ascend a few hundred feet. Instead, he rose to 16,000 feet over Long Beach in California. Remarkably, despite contacting power lines at landing, Larry Walters survived his flight, although he was fined several thousand dollars by the FAA!!
Closer to home in the UK, Herefordshire man Ian Ashpole made some ascents to 10,000 feet with several hundred large balloons as an advertising promotion for a champagne company in 1997. For safety reasons, Ashpole ascended with his cluster of balloons attached to a hot-air balloon and descended via parachute.
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