James Sadler chose to make his balloons out of silk – colourful, light and strong. But do we use the same materials today? And what properties do different materials have that make them good for ballooning?
Mystery materials: feeling inside boxes, visitors try to describe the texture of the materials within – and whether they have any place in making a balloon as Sadler would have known them. Visitors can then reveal how the materials – silk, rope, wood, metal, animal bladder etc were used by early balloonists.
Modern materials under the microscope: since the 1950s, rip-stop nylon has been a material of choice for ballooning – see this fabric and other modern materials under the microscope and learn what makes them so special.
Balloonists like the Montgolfier brothers thought you had to fill a balloon with smoke. But James Sadler knew they were wrong – you needed a gas less dense than air. So what did Sadler know about the physics of making a balloon fly? What gadget did he invent to help his balloons work? And what gases do we use today to make balloons fly, and why?
The power of air: use an Airzooka to send a vortex of air blasting across the room, and see how air might be invisible, but it has mass and substance. Fill the Airzooka with smoke, and you can see the vortex made by the air.
Air maze: for younger visitors, see the power of air to push balls around our maze of tubes.
Solid to gas: before your very eyes, see a lump of solid carbon dioxide turn straight into gas, creating swirling, misty patterns – and learn about the different states of matter.
The right gas for the job: in this fun interactive game, compete against other visitors to select a suitable gas for your balloon – avoiding those that are too heavy, too expensive, or too explosive!
James Sadler was all-too-aware of the dangers getting your balloon to fly high – he cheated death many times. So what are the forces that a balloon must overcome to get off the ground? How can balloonists control their height and speed, and how can they stay safe?
Hot air balloon model: activate our hot-air balloon model and see it inflate and rise into the air in the centre of the gallery. Learn about the force of gravity that initially holds the balloon down, and how, once the balloon is filled with hot air, it rises through buoyancy.
Bubble tube: see how bubbles of different gases and temperatures of air move through tubes of liquid, observing that warmer air takes up more space than cold air and that warm air bubbles rise more quickly.
Balloon workshop: in a special hands-on workshop, build and fly your own tissue paper balloon.
James Sadler was one of the first people to fly a balloon using coal gas, a form of energy only just being understood. He also used his knowledge of heat energy to invent and patent a rotary steam engine used in London and Shropshire. But how and why does the heat of the atmosphere change as you rise up into the air during a balloon flight?
Heat camera: use a thermographic camera to see what’s warmer and colder around you – and on you. Point the camera at the hot air balloon exhibit to see its temperature change.
The weather report: learn how the atmosphere changes temperature as you rise up, and try your hand at giving the atmospheric weather report in our very own weather TV studio.
Energy show: put your goggles on for an energetic exploration of the energy stored away in different fuels – gas and liquid.
James Sadler travelled at up to 94 miles per hour by balloon, when the usual travel speed was that of a horse. On his very first balloon flight on 4 October 1784, he rose about 3,600 ft (1097m) in the air, seeing a view no one had seen before. How did Sadler manage to avoid the dangers of ballooning that later claimed the life of his son? And what are the big ballooning achievements today, for manned or unmanned flights?
Help Sadler stay alive: play a game, presented on touch screen or as a board game, to see if you can avoid the storms, trees and other dangers of a balloon ride – and catch the right breeze to get to your destination without having to vent too much hot air or run out of fuel.
Record-breakers’ video wall: from Per Lindstrand to Felix Baumgartner, explore a video database of record-breaking balloon flights and daredevil stunts
James Sadler was the first Englishman to fly, and today you can see the view that he saw from our balloon. Balloons are increasingly important for science, archaeology and for gathering data. How do unmanned weather balloons supply vital atmospheric information? And how are they helping reveal secrets about our landscape and our planet?
Balloons to the rescue: in this interactive and easily updated touchscreen database, find out about the latest science stories in which balloons will reveal data about the weather (balloons launched in Malawi), promise to bring internet access to those in remote areas (Google’s Loon project), and are destined to lift huge cranes at major seaports (the Tethered Air project).
Hands-on weather: explore what we know about the atmosphere today from satellites and balloon data, and see it projected onto a real-time globe.
Aerial puzzles: balloons give you an amazing view of our planet. See if you can piece together these aerial images of familiar places (e.g. Stonehenge, the Pyramids, the Sheldonian Theatre) – and work out what they show.
James Sadler had lowly beginnings as a pastry chef, and had to overcome the scepticism of the more educated residents of Oxford that he could do what he claimed. Yet in his lifetime he became enormously successful and celebrated – and now, balloons are incredibly popular again. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the ways we fly now? It might seem unlikely, but could airships and balloons be a viable alternative for flight and commercial transport today?
Festo interactive flying penguin: see how the helium-filled Festo penguin flies, and investigate how to make agile and manoeuvrable flying objects by learning from nature.
Fly the airship: try our simulator of an airship and compare its cost, capacity and environmental impact to that of an aircraft.
Although it’s hard to believe now, James Sadler had been warned that sky dragons might come and attack him on his balloon flight. Some people also thought you could row through the air with a paddle. So how do inventors like him help us go from myth to fact? What does it take to be an inventor, an explorer, a risk-taker, and overcome sceptics like he did? Do you think you can take up the challenge and help build the future?
Your big science questions: what scientific problem or daily challenge would you like to solve in your lifetime? What invention or discovery would make your life better? Leave your video on our special exhibit.