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Unmanned hot air balloons are mentioned in Chinese history. Zhuge Liang in the Three Kingdoms era used airborne lanterns for military signaling. These lanterns, known as Kongming lanterns (孔明灯) nowadays, are still being flown in China, despite the risk of causing a fire upon landing.
There is also some speculation that hot air balloons were used by the Nazca Indians of Peru some 1500 years ago as a tool for design vast drawings on the Nazca plain.
The first clearly recorded instances of balloons capable of carrying passengers used hot air to obtain buoyancy and were built by the brothers Josef and Etienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France. They were from a family of paper manufacturers who had noticed the ash rising in fires. After experimenting with un-crewed balloons and flights with animals, the first balloon flight with humans on board took place on 21 November 1783. King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, but a young physicist named Pilātre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d'Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honor. Hot air balloons were basically paper bags with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom, so they had a tendency to catch fire and be destroyed on landing.
The first hot air balloon flight in the United States took place on January 9, 1793. The 45 minute flight started in Philadelphia and ended in Gloucester County, New Jersey. The flight was witnessed by George Washington.
Balloons were the first manifestation of air power. Hot air balloons such as The Enterprise were used by the North for artillery observation in the American Civil War and were used for communication during the Siege of Paris in 1871. They were also used for observation of trench warfare in World War I. However, as the development of balloons that used unheated gases (such as hydrogen) became more refined, hot air for ballooning receded to obscurity for most of the 1800's and the first half of the 1900's. Only with advances in material and fuel technology did hot air ballooning return to the fore.
The first modern hot air balloon was designed and built in 1960 by Ed Yost. Yost used a modified propane powered "weed burner" to heat the air and lightweight nylon fabric for the envelope material. He made the first free flight of such an aircraft in Bruning, Nebraska on 22 October 1960.Today, hot air balloons are used for pleasure, sport and rides for hire - all around the world.
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