1 Balloons are big business nowadays! People dress up like clowns and deliver large bouquets of balloons to sick people in the hospital or to guests at birthday parties. Black balloons, heart-shaped balloons, and special plastic balloons are sold by many florists. Did you ever wonder who invented them?

2 Nature really created the first “balloons.” These glistening films of liquid called bubbles led to attempts to make balloons. The first toy balloons didn’t look anything like the ones we use today. Instead they were made of paper, animal bladders, or a rough rubber latex.

3 In the second century B.C., Chinese artisans made balloons from paper. Acrobats carried them in their acts, probably more for dramatic effect than for balance. Instructions for making paper balloons were discovered in the earliest records of the Japanese paper-folding art called origami.

4 People in other countries made toy balloons by blowing up sheep and goat bladders. These inflated bladders were used as balls in some games. One dictionary says that the word balloon came from the word balone. A balone was a ball used during the Italian Renaissance to play a type of football game. During the 1600s in England, twenty to forty men played a soccerlike game with a blown-up bladder for a ball.

Shakespeare wrote about boys swimming on inflated bladders. Shortly after Shakespeare’s time, men thought of balloons not only as balls to be thrown and kicked in games but also as spheres that would rise high in the air. They tried to make balloons out of other materials, too, like paper, animal skin, and varnished cloth.

5 During the 1700s and 1800s toy balloons imitated large flight balloons. Tiny wicker baskets hung from strings attached to the balloons. Hot air inside both large and toy balloons caused them to rise. Crowds formed around men selling toy hot-air balloons made of paper at European carnivals and amusement parks.

6 About this same time a process was discovered that allowed balloons to be inflated with hydrogen, a light, colorless gas. Because hydrogen weighs so much less than air, it makes balloons rise high in the sky. However, hydrogen is highly flammable, and the risk of an explosion by fire made it very dangerous to use.

When people first made toy balloons with rubber, the balloons didn’t work very well. In warm weather the rubber became soft and sticky; in cold weather it cracked.

7 In 1839 Charles Goodyear accidently dropped some rubber mixed with sulphur onto a hot stove and discovered the process known as vulcanization. This process increased the rubber’s elasticity at different temperatures. It also made rubber stronger, longer-lasting, and watertight.

Now, with additional modern methods, balloons are even better. And instead of hydrogen, they can be inflated with helium, a much safer gas.

Besides being used for decorating, balloons are used for sending messages and for science experiments. They come in a wide range of colors, sizes, and shapes, and they are symbols of happiness and festivity. Maybe you can have a clown deliver a bunch of tiger heads, chain balloons, flying rockets, or other balloons to your next birthday party.

Balloon Invitations

You will need: one colored balloon for each invitation, wire twist ties, black felt-tip marker, and envelopes.

  1. Blow up each balloon and seal off air with twist tie.

  2. Write message (date, time, place, etc.) on balloon with marker.

  3. Let air out of balloon.

  4. Place balloon invitation in envelope, then deliver it by hand or mail it.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney