The “daddy” of the balloon industry
The balloon industry began in the Midwest when Jean Piccard, a Swiss-born balloonist, was brought to the University of Minnesota in 1936 by John D. Akerman, head of the aeronautical engineering department.
General Mills’ Aeronautical Research Division was established in 1946 with Otto C. Winzen as the chief engineer. Piccard began working as a research engineer that same year. Piccard’s ideas were the seeds for Project Helios, sponsored by the Naval Office and it was General Mills’ first big balloon project.
Routine balloon flights began in 1947 after the launch of the first successful polyethylene balloon. The teardrop-shaped balloon was 70 feet in diameter and 100 feet long.
(Photo: One of General Mills’ giant balloons for stratosphere research, circa 1948, published in “Progress Thru Research,” vol. 2, no. 2, Winter, 1948.)
On October 20, 1947, one balloon was not recovered and startled Minneapolis residents as it hung 100,000 feet over the city.
In a University of Minnesota News Service press release, Adeline B. Melcher, the college’s chief switchboard operator, stated that “the switchboard was jammed with calls for an hour from worried persons who wanted to know if there was a flying saucer in the sky or if it was the beginning of the end of the world.”
There were four plastic balloon manufacturers in the Upper Midwest by 1960, employing 500 people, with anticipated sales of around $7 million. As the pioneer of post-war balloon development, General Mills had been the springboard for all but one of the firms.
General Mills worked on a number of projects including Skyhook, Strateoscope, Aerocap Balloons, Pillow Balloons, Grab Bag and Moby Dick (also known as Gopher).
Litton Industries of Beverly Hills purchased the Aerospace Research and Engineering Departments of the Electronic Division of General Mills in August 1963.
(Photo: Cover image from “Minnesota: Balloon Capital of the World,” prepared by General Mills. The booklet was distributed at the Eleventh Annual Breakfast for Editors on October 1, 1960, and gave a brief history of General Mills’ involvement with balloon research.)
Thousands of individuals worked with the balloon projects. Ray Hakomki, a long time General Mills researcher worked with Piccard on Project Helios. Harold F. “Bud” Froehlich was also an active member of the research team. Both men have contributed greatly to General Mills and its Archives.
The National Balloon Museum is located in Indianola, Iowa. Paul E. (Ed) Yost, senior engineer and tracking pilot for the High Altitude Research Division of General Mills in Minneapolis from 1949 to 1955 – and known as the father of modern hot-air ballooning – is one of the members of the museum’s Hall of Fame.
The website for the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque, NM also has more information on the industry.
Editor’s note: The photo of the billboard above is circa 1950.
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