Hot-Air Balloon Cloths: Characterization of Coated Fabrics from Historic Collections of 19th Century Hot-Air Balloon Fragments
Objective: This project encompasses materials characterization of two sets of fabric samples from 18th- to 19th-century lighter-than-air balloons. Analysis addresses the identity of the component materials, as well as their state of degradation. Results of the analysis will assist Library of Congress conservators in the preservation treatment and housing of the fabric samples, and are expected to contribute to a better understanding of the history of technology of balloon aeronautics.
Background: Each balloon fragment marks an important milestone in the early development of flight, both historically and technologically. In the so-called Tissandier Collection album, eighteen samples from French balloons are assembled and meticulously labeled, in many instances by name, location and date of flight. The second collection of fragments was assembled during the American Civil War era by balloonist Thaddeus Lowe. It is poorly housed in envelopes that are deteriorating but usually labeled with the names of the source balloons.
In both collections, the fragments frequently appear dark brown, brittle, and exhibit exudates. Since these qualities most likely originate in the coating applied to the cloths, the fragments are rare samples of experimental materials designed by pioneers of flight, as well as artifacts of historic early flights. It is possible that the collections contain examples of some of the earliest documented uses of rubber coatings in the Western world, as well as oil-based coatings.
Analytical Investigation: The scope of this investigation involves materials analysis of the experimental cloths, including the substrates (silk, cotton or linen), the organic coatings and their exudates. Methods of analysis build on historical information about early balloon fabrics and preliminary elemental characterization obtained by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy/energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS), which found a general lack of metals, except for lead, chlorine and sulfur. Further analysis will include fiber identification, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), Raman spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. Analysis may also illuminate issues of attribution surrounding the Tissandier album and contribute to a better understanding of the technology and stability of early waterproofed fabrics.
Balloon cloth fragments from the Tissandier Album are shown above.