According to the sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham, the Chinese experimented with small hot air balloons for signaling from as early as the 3rd century BC, during the Warring States period. Traditionally, however, their invention is attributed to the sage and military strategist Zhuge Liang (181–234 AD) whose reverent term of address was Kongming. He is said to have used a message written on a sky lantern to summon help on an occasion when he was surrounded by enemy troops. For this reason they are still known in China as Kongming lanterns (孔明燈, 孔明灯, kǒngmíng dēng). (However, some claim that the name actually comes from the lantern's resemblance to the hat Kongming is traditionally shown to be wearing.)Sky lanterns are a possible explanation for some UFO sightings through the years.
Usage in festivals
In ancient China, sky lanterns were strategically used in wars. However later on, non-military applications were employed as they became popular with children at festivals. These lanterns were subsequently incorporated into festivals like the Chinese Mid-Autumn and Lantern Festivals.
The Lanna people of northern Thailand use "floating lanterns" (โคมลอย, khom loi) year round, for celebrations and other special occasions. One very important festival in which sky lanterns are used is the Lanna Yi Peng festival, which is held on a full moon of the 2nd month (ยี่เป็ง, Yi Peng) of the Lanna calendar (which coincides with Loi Krathong, the traditional festival on the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar). During the Yi Peng festival, a multitude of lanterns are launched into the air where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating by through the sky. The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations can be seen in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom. The festival is meant as a time to obtain Buddhist merit (ทำบุญ, tham bun). In recent times, floating lanterns have become so popular with all Thai people that they have become integrated into the festival in the rest of country.
In addition, people will also decorate their houses, gardens and temples with intricately shaped paper lanterns (โคมไฟ, khom fai) of various forms. It is considered good luck to release a sky lantern, and many Thais believe they are symbolic of problems and worries floating away.
Portugal and Brazil
In Brazil, sky lanterns (balão in Portuguese) were a traditional feature of the winter holidays (Festas Juninas) at the end of June. It is claimed that custom was brought to Brazil from Portugal by colonists in the 16th century, and is still strong in Portugal, especially in Porto. The June holidays tradition also includes firecrackers and fireworks another Chinese invention; so it is conjectured that these elements may have been brought from China, by Portuguese explorers around the 1500. The design and customs of Brazilian sky lanterns are modified to suite their festivals.
Frei Bartolomeu de Gusmão, using a large scale version of these lanterns, was the first man to fly a Hot air balloon in August 8, 1709, in the hall of the Casa da Índia in Lisbon, Portugal, long before the Montgolfier brothers.
Brazilian sky lanterns were usually made by small groups of children and adolescents; but adults sometimes joined the effort, especially for the larger and most elaborate balloons. The launching of a large lantern, which could be one or two metres across, would usually require the cooperation of several people, to hold the balloon fully stretched until it was fully inflated.