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My world has lots of civilizations which, due to geography, have little access to the kind of sea travel as a means for trade, exploration, and conquest. I think the people of this world may be driven to explore air travel as an alternative. However, I know that airplanes and balloons are "modern" technology, and tend to use modern synthetic materials that ancient peoples wouldn't have had access to. So my question is which of the materials that ancient peoples had access to would work best for building air vehicles, and could they construct entire fleets this way? What would be the practical limitations on their use of this technology?

I'm working with the assumption that these cultures have basic understandings of the principles of buoyancy, and have at least some access to gasses like helium and hydrogen thru magic/alchemy. I am most interested in the construction of the air vessels themselves, such as the balloon envelope which has to be a fine enough fabric to keep gas from leaking out, or the rigid skeletons of zeppelins and airplanes.

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    $\begingroup$ Both hot air & hydrogen balloons predate modern synthetic materials by about 150 years. The Montgolfier brothers' first balloons used things like silk & paper. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 14 '17 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ Your title says "hot air balloon", yet you say your people have access to helium and hydrogen. For what? You're making a hot air balloon, you don't need special gasses, just air and heat! As @jamesqf says, just look up these guys: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgolfier_brothers $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Jun 14 '17 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ A culture that has access to helium and hydrogen in significant amounts can basically build anything we can because of the way one obtains those gases. Storing hydrogen alone is difficult enough as it requires modern materials for you to need some kind of high tech. Saying "magic" is often far too easy - if so, state "magic gas that makes things go up" and do not use hydrogen or helium as it would imply an advanced culture. Knowing what helium is alone is insanely advanced - it was discovered in the spectrum of the sun - just to give you an idea. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 14 '17 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35: Not so, as hydrogen balloons were flown only a short time (months, IIRC) after the Montgolfier's first hot air ones. The hydrogen wasn't stored (except in the balloon itself, it was produced as needed by chemical reactions. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 15 '17 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35: The discussion is not nonsensical, it is a reasonable response to the OP's question. Had some ancient civilization been a bit more interested in practical alchemy, could they have used the materials at hand to produce hydrogen, and figure out how to use it in balloons? The answer is fairly obviously yes, because it was done with technology not much more advanced. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 17 '17 at 17:06
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Unmanned hot air balloons are popular in Chinese history. Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han kingdom, in the Three Kingdoms era (c. AD 220-280) used airborne lanterns for military signaling. These lanterns are known as Kongming lanterns (孔明灯).

It has been demonstrated that manned hot air balloons can be built using ancient materials like those available to Nazca civilization (smoked cotton fabric for the balloon and reed for the gondola).

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Silk makes great hot air balloons as it is light weight and super strong. The practical limitation is going to be silk production. Silkworms are fussy creatures. You'll need forests of mulberry trees just to feed them. You need lots of cocoons just to make one plied thread. The keyword is sericulture.

Production of silk goes back to ancient times in China.

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There are a few materials you could use, silk being one.

If silk isn't appropriate, leather may be an option, it's waay heavier however it's a much more accessible material if you have the craftmanship and can cut it thin enough.

Also, helium is a poor choice for filling it, seeing as if you get a puncture or something it'll be a pain to refill, hot air would be a much better choice (hence - Hot Air Balloon)

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