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A Comprehensive Background in Balloons


When you think of the word ‘Balloons’ what images appear in your mind? Is it simple balloons you blow up for children’s parties, or balloons that fly off on their own, or the special balloons for key events like the ones produced for the wedding of Charles and Diana? There are now so many different types of balloons on the market that you can get almost anything for everything any event you like.

So what exactly is a balloon? One definition defines a balloon as a flexible bag which you fill with air or some other type of gas, such as helium or hydrogen. The early balloons would have been made with non elastic material but modern balloons are made with latex so they have great elasticity and can be pumped up to much larger sizes.

History of Balloons

The earliest known balloons were made in Central and Southern America by the Aztec Indians. They were made out of the bowels of cats which were carefully cleaned then turned inside out. They were sewn with special vegetable thread that had the property of sticking to itself when dried in the sun and creating an almost airtight seal. The balloons were then made into air filled model animals and burned at the top of the Aztec pyramid as an offering to the sun god. (The first example of balloon modelling). A Portuguese priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmao, held the first public exhibition of a balloon in the Portuguese Court in Lisbon in 1709 which was probably made from an animal bladder that stretched when filled with air. The rubber balloon was invented in 1824 by a Michael Faraday and was filled with hydrogen to be used in his experiments with hydrogen. But the familiar latex balloon did not appear until 1847.

The early rubber balloons were sold in America in Parks and Circuses for a penny each. Although the latex balloon was manufactured in London in the mid 1800’s the mass production of them did not appear until much later in 1931.

As technology has become more advanced so has the world of balloons. Now balloons can be made from rubber, latex, polychloroprene or nylon. They can be filled with air, helium, hydrogen or water. Filling the balloon with air can be done with the mouth, a manual pump(such as a hand pump), or electric inflator or with compressed gas. The balloons are used for many differing purposes, and decorated in numerous ways to fit the circumstance.

Some balloons are purely for decoration, others are ideal for specific uses because of their low density and relatively low cost. The balloon’s properties have led to them being used in a wide range of other applications in the areas of meteorology, military defense, medical treatment, and transportation.

Types of Balloons

Party Balloons

The most common and familiar types of balloons are the party balloons. These are usually bought in small packets and blown up with a pump to create a festive scene for children’s parties and other kinds of celebratory events where advertising balloons can make all the difference.

These days I often see a cluster of balloons at the entrance to a house or hall to indicate where the party is being held. The balloons come in many different sizes and colours and can have printing on the face which expands as the balloon is inflated. Party Balloons are mostly made of natural latex tapped from rubber trees. The rubber’s elasticity makes the volume variable. Balloons filled with air usually hold their size and shape much longer.

Helium Balloons

Balloons which float upwards are filled with the gas helium which is lighter than air. So for an event where balloons are let off into the atmosphere, they will need to be helium balloons. Helium filled rubber balloons typically only retain their buoyancy for a few days. The enclosed helium atoms are smaller than the pores in the latex through which they escape. To increase the float time of a helium balloon for a week or more, the inside of the balloons can be coated with a special polymer solution to reduce the leakage of the helium.

Water Balloons

The water balloons are often smaller than regular balloons and made from thin rubber so that they can be easily broken. They are filled with water and are intended for children to throw at each other as a game or practical joke with the aim of getting each other soaked. They may also be used in competitions or games.

Foil Balloons

In the late 1970s along came the foil balloon. These are made of thin non-stretch metalized plastic film or mylar. They are much more expensive and made an appearance at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana causing quite a stir. These balloons have attractive shiny reflective surfaces and can be printed with color pictures, logos and patterns to customize them. The most important characteristic of metalized nylon for balloons is its ability to keep the helium gas from escaping for several weeks because it is less permeable. Foil balloons then have the advantage of being light weight, longer-lasting, with increased buoyancy. They are perfect for parties, in-store decorations, special celebrations and for gifts.

Animal-Shaped Balloons

Metalized nylon balloons can be cut into the three dimensional shapes of animals and then printed to represent the chosen animal. Once inflated the balloons make very bright, decorative items for gifts or may be used as a theme for a special event. Screen printing is used to create the designs for these spectacular pieces.

Balloon Modelling and Balloons in Art

Balloon modelling is a popular entertainment for children and adults alike. A Balloon artist twists and ties inflated tubular balloons into shapes resembling animals or even people. Sometimes they are called balloon sculptures, not to be confused with those cited below. When I have watched these artists at work I have often wondered why the balloons don’t burst when they are working.

The type of Latex used for balloon sculptures is made of extra-stretchy rubber so that they can be tied and twisted without bursting. Initially Latex balloons of the tiny tubular kind are extremely hard to inflate so often the sculptor uses a pump at first.

Balloon Sculptures

Professional party decorators may use hundreds of helium balloons to create balloon sculptures. These sculptures are often limited because of the round shape of the balloons to simple arches or walls but on occasion more ambitious “sculptures” have been attempted. Sometimes balloons are used as table decorations for special events which will have 3 or 5 balloons to each bouquet. The decoration will usually include curled ribbon with an added weight to stop the balloons from floating away.

Professional balloon party decorators use electronic equipment to enable the exact amount of helium to fill the balloon. For non-floating balloons air inflators are used. Professional quality balloons differ from most retail packet balloons as they are bigger in size and made from 100% biodegradable latex.

Balloon Drops

I am sure you will have been to a party or dance where at the end of the evening hundreds of balloons fall from the ceiling to mingle amongst the participants. This is known as a balloon drop and is often performed at New Year’s Eve celebrations or at political rallies and conventions. It is a relatively low cost way of creating a festive atmosphere at the party climax, so everyone goes away feeling they have had a really good time.

If you want to create a balloon drop for your own event you will need to set up a large plastic bag or net overhead, which is suspended at a certain height. This is then filled with air-inflated balloons so that they will fall onto the target area below when the balloons are released. You will also need to create a mechanism for releasing the balloons. Balloon drops may also be performed at many celebrations, including graduations and weddings.

Balloon Rockets

As a child I am sure you played the game of blowing up a balloon then letting it go while watching it speed around the room making a rude noise with everyone falling about laughing. These are called balloon rockets and I remember being intrigued and wondering how they worked. When the mouth of the balloon is released, the greater pressure of air inside forces its way out and the elasticity of the balloon contracts causing the balloon to be propelled forward. This is fundamentally how a rocket works. The balloon can also be filled with gases other than air, with similar results. Besides being simple toys, balloon rockets are a widely used teaching device to demonstrate physical principles and the functioning of a rocket. The balloon rocket is regularly used to demonstrate Newton’s third law in physics.

Balloon Publicity

Another successful approach to promoting a company is where a company logo or message is printed onto the balloons and sent out in a box. There are specialists companies that provide balloon in a box services who can be contacted for any quantity of these great promotional balloons.

Balloon Releases

In Australia they had a fund raising event on 18th April for Make-A-Wish Day. The 5,000 released balloons make a spectacular sight as they rise across the bay marking the number of wishes granted since 1985.

If you are planning a balloon release or race of more than 5,000 balloons, it is a requirement that you apply in writing for permission to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) at least 28 days in advance. The CAA also like to be informed of balloon releases up to 5,000. A form can be obtained by calling either the NABAS office on 01989 762 204 or the Airspace Utilisation Section of the CAA on 020 7453 6599

Because of concerns about the bearing on the environment of large numbers of balloons being released, the NABAS – The Balloon Association have produced a code of conduct which can be found on their website at www.nabas.co.uk

Safety and Environmental Concerns

Balloons are made of natural rubber latex (NRL) which is a natural product coming from rubber trees that are grown in certain areas of the tropics. These are not trees that are cut down to produce the NRL. The NRL is obtained by tapping from mature trees and is a sustainable crop providing employment for many agricultural workers in some of the poorest areas of the world.

As a consequence of NRL cultivation and the consumption of latex products, the planting and maintenance of rubber tree plantations helps towards the prevention of tropical rainforest deforestation. This contributes significantly to the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, produced by industrialised nations and a major source of global warming.

Research shows that latex balloons which are completely natural coming from the Hevea tree degrade faster than oak leaves. Oxidation occurs first in the breakdown of latex and it begins within 60 minutes of a balloon being inflated. As the decaying process is by natural exposure nutrients are released into the soil. Most balloons used in releases today are made of bio-degradable latex.

An estimated 90/95% of balloons released rise to an altitude of 5 miles, at which height the cold will cause the balloon to become brittle and shatter into miniscule pieces. The small fragments then floating back to earth to degrade in the ground. Balloon fragments are unlikely to cause harm if accidentally ingested. This is because latex and the dyes used in latex colouring are non-toxic.

Printed latex balloons are a fantastic, low-cost and environmentally friendly way of advertising at promotions and events. All latex balloons supplied by B-Loony, the UK’s largest printed balloon manufacturer, are completely biodegradable. The code of conduct produced by NABAS for balloon releases gives advice to ensure the protection of our environment.

Manufacture of Balloons

Balloons are manufactured by their millions every day in many countries. The rubber is collected as liquid from a rubber tree and then sent to the factories where the liquid goes through a series of treatment processes. These processes include shaping and colouring operations and testing for quality. The outcomes are thousands balloons which provide a splash of colour and party atmosphere at celebrations and conferences or any event where a large number of people gather.


Toy balloons have been a source of pleasure and excitement throughout the world for many years. They have provided hours of entertainment and interest for children as well as being an educational resource. Non toy Balloons are being used for science, medicine and travel and are invaluable in helping us to learn about our world. Balloons I am sure will remain very alive and active on the world’s scene for many years to come.

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