Today's balloon animals—those mainstays of carnivals and country fairs—all begin as flat, 60-inch-long "worms." Air gives the worm structure, and twists give it dimension and shape. Balloon “twisters” can transform a simple worm into almost any animal. So it's fitting that the first balloons were made from actual animal intestines, which provided a good—albeit smelly—medium for manipulation into shapes. These balloons appear as far back as the Aztecs, who cleaned out cat intestines, stomachs, and bladders, let them dry, and sewed them with a vegetable thread that created an airtight seal; they would twist these creations (blowing to inflate after each twist) into balloon animals and set them on fire as offerings to the gods.
Intestines were relegated to sausage casings with the invention of the rubber balloon by Michael Faraday in 1824. The following year, Thomas Hancock mass-marketed rubber balloons in the form of a kit, which contained liquid rubber and a syringe, which customers used to make the balloon. Neil Tillotson invented the modern latex balloon in 1931. But the shapes of these early balloons were more conducive to water balloon fights and birthday surprises than the long and thin shape necessary for the formation of the ears and legs of balloon animals.
Skinny balloons were first manufactured in Japan after World War II. The long and thin balloons were packaged with directions to join several balloons into different animals. The current incarnation of skinny balloons were first manufactured in the 1950s. These new bright, long, inexpensive balloons allowed people to put multiple twists in a single balloon, allowing more intricate animals that incorporated more balloons. Balloon animals could now evolve from simple animals to complex creatures.
The techniques of balloon twisting have not changed much since the invention of the skinny balloon, but whether it is a simple puppy or a replica of a T. rex, balloon animals continue to put smiles on the faces of young and old.
Monica Granados is getting her PhD in Biology at McGill University.