Smoke balloons and parachutes

Smoke Balloons at the Windsor County Fair

Submitted 9 months ago
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From the 1800s to the 1900s, fairs across the country featured a show involving smoke balloons. A darevdevil or stuntman wearing a parachute was attached to a basket-less balloon, which was then held over a fire until filled with smoke. "The smoke was not just for dramatic effect; it was essential to retain heat, as no fire was carried onboard. Clean air cools rapidly in an ascending balloon, not only by radiation but also by the adiabatic process of expansion. The heat in the carbon particles of smoke, however, is not affected by the change in atmospheric pressure during an ascent, so the smoke acts as a heat sink in addition to freshly sealing the porous muslin fabric that was typically used in such balloons."

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If the balloon didn't catch fire and was filled with smoke, it could be released to shoot up hundreds of feet into the air, dragging the stuntman up with it. When the balloon reached the highest point, the stuntman detached, opened the parachute, and descended to the ground again, much to the delight of the crowd below. 

At least that was the idea. In September 1900, the Windsor County Fair (now the location of the Billings Farm & Museum) had such a spectacle. An article about the event appeared in the Interstate Journal:

"The balloon filled by a gasoline contrivance making a terrifying noise louder than a hundred plumbers’ furnaces, went up only a little distance and the parachutist couldn't cut loose to save him. So the whole thing settled in apple-pie order in a tree on the Billings estate."

The stuntman was obviously not successful in his feat of daring. How strange that no one mentions in the Interstate Journal article how they got the man out of the tree.


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