Of course the origins can be traced back to a few different places and the farthest back I found was from China. In China paper balloons were used for military signalling. Bt the first documented balloon science that I found was traced back to France in the 1700's. Each of the first flights were one part science, and one part spectacle with tens of thousands turning up to watch each flight.
One of the first scientific experiments done with a balloon was to fly a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. This was to determine if humans could indeed survive a balloon flight. The duck was a control as it was an animal known to be able to live at higher altitudes, the chicken was a control as it was also a bird, but a bird that doesn't fly, and the sheep represented a human as it's a larger mammal.
Soon after humans started flying and every one was trying to fly higher and longer distances. Eventually two brave men decided to try to cross the English channel. There is another interesting scientific/artistic experiment that tells this story (watch the video below).
Ballooning and science using balloons really took off during the romantic era where it was very common for art and science to overlap. Wordsworth wrote pomes about ballooning, beautiful artwork depicted the scientific experiments, and still today we have overlap. To one extreme we have the performance group AeroSphere using balloons. However we also have many of our data inspiring art work be it sprites (lightning strikes), or the Alien birds. I heard of, but can't find the link for a quilt designed off of one of the model runs of the magnetosphere that won a prize.
When art and science mix it's always exciting.
This week Robyn and I are at the Science working group meeting for the Van Allen Probes (being held in the Van Allen Hall at the University of Iowa). Hopefully we'll have some great things to share after this meeting. I'm trying to post a few updates on twitter so keep an eye out for little tidbits through out the week.