Balloon mail refers to the transport of mail (usually for weight reasons in the form of a postcard) carrying the name of the sender by means of an unguided hydrogen or helium filled balloon. Since the balloon is not controllable, the delivery of a balloon mail is left to good fortune; often the balloon and postcard are lost. A found balloon should be returned to the sender (by conventional post) with an indication of the discovery site, so that the sender can determine how far their balloon flew. Frequently balloon mail is sent as part of a balloon competition.
Historically, balloons were used to transport mail from Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-72. Sixty-five unguided mail balloons were released in besieged Paris to communicate with the world beyond the besieging forces, of which only two went missing. The world's first balloon airmail service was begun out of pure necessity and carried out by the brave acts and audacity of some of France's greatest scientists, inventors and artists. From the first announcement of the impending arrival of Prussian uhlans at the city gates, Parisians refused to capitulate. Instead, the city rallied around the formation of a new Republic and began to work out valiant replies to the question of keeping advancing armies at bay. Even after the last trains had left their stations, carefully hidden telegraph cables and foot messengers were used to pass vital information through enemy lines. However, as an invincible iron circle closed in around the city, buried lines were cut and messengers were captured, shot or turned back. At last, only the skies above the city remained open. The French term ballon monté means the balloon was manned, while ballon non-monté meant unmanned. After the siege, Anglo-French scientist Dr Pierre Wesby travelled to Burton-on-Trent, where in 1873 he started a business to transport mail across the Irish Sea to Dublin, from England. It is not known how this venture turned out; the records of Wesby's company were lost in 1916, when an errant bomb from the LZ 54 (L 19) destroyed them.
Balloon mail has been used for spreading information and propaganda materials, in particular for spreading propaganda to the population in countries with dictatorial governments. A balloon can be released from outside the sphere of influence of these governments and, wind permitting, can travel several hundred kilometers. This method of balloon mail has been used by private activists to distribute leaflets to Warsaw Pact countries from West Germany in the mid-1950s; and by South Koreans to North Korea discussing the health of their leader, Kim Jong-il.
- Loving, Matthew. (2011) Bullets and Balloons: French airmail during the Siege of Paris. Franconian Press (Kindle edition).
- Bennett, Russell and Watson, James; Philatelic Terms Illustrated, Stanley Gibbons Publications, London (1978).
- "Balloon Wheel Dumps Leaflets." Popular Mechanics, February 1956, p. 151.
- Sudworth, John (2008-11-10). "Storm looms over N Korea balloons". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-11-11.