A needle is, as Doug Henning used to note in performance, the natural enemy of the balloon. Thus, it is not surprising that the effect of penetrating a needle or spike through a balloon has been approached many times. One early entry was William G. Strickland's “The Pneumatic Pincushion,” in the March 1930 Magic Wand, Vol. 18 No. 145, p. 73. That effect, as with other versions, began with having the balloon inserted into a box, which was then pierced with several knitting needles, with no harm to the balloon. Subsequent versions also used some sort of covering box or tube. Several of these were marketed.
The effect of piercing a fully unconcealed balloon – what we now think of as the “Needle Through Balloon” – was devised by Tom Ransom, and published in the New Phoenix of July 23, 1954, No. 312, p. 51 as “No Bop Balloon”. In this, a large hatpin was stuck into a balloon, and by doing this at the end of the balloon (where the rubber is thicker), the balloon would not burst.
In England, David Nixon performed this on his television series in 1956; in the December 1956 issue of The Gen, Vol. 12 No. 8, p. 172, this was described by Harry Stanley, who stated that it was the Ransom method (albeit without mentioning Ransom by name – starting a sad tradition in regard to this trick). At the start of 1956, Roy Baker marketed the “Pincushion Balloon.” This was the Ransom method.
In the March 1957 issue of The Gen, Vol. 12 No. 1, p. 278, appeared “Supertration” by G. N. Rhodes, wherein a balloon was pierced by several hatpins. This made use of the Grant method with tape, but as an overt penetration as in the Ransom routine.
In April 1957, U. F. Grant's “Bowl Fountain” was published in Hugard's Magic Monthly, Vol. 14 No. 11, p. 557. This was not a balloon penetration per se, but rather a method for producing a thin spout of water. A water-filled balloon, hidden inside a bowl, had a piece of transparent tape stuck on it. When the balloon was secretly pierced through the tape with a needle, the balloon did not rupture; instead, the pressure from the filled balloon caused the water to jet upwards. This appears to be the first use of tape to enable the piercing of the balloon without breakage.
From there, the effect using the Grant tape method with ordinary pins appeared in various beginner's books. In the June 1962 Linking Ring, Vol. 42 No. 6, p. 65, Bernard J. McGory Jr. had a routine called “Heart Surgery,” in which a red balloon was pierced using a large threaded upholstering needle. The balloon was “sewn” with the curved needle, meaning that the penetration went from outside in and from inside out, with the thread pulled along the route. This used the Grant method (McGory credits Rhodes, but mentions Grant).
In 1974, the German magic dealer Borretti marketed “Super Needled Balloon” which was advertised in English-language magic as of 1976. This was the Ransom method, using a transparent balloon (not a new idea) and a very large and sharp metal needle. The only new technical feature was the advice to lubricate the needle, making it less likely that such a large skewer would snag and thus burst the balloon.
Then in December 1977, on his second NBC special, Doug Henning performed the Needle Through Balloon using the oversized needle and transparent balloon. Almost overnight, it seemed that every dealer was selling those large needles along with the same type of colorless balloon that had been used by Henning. Thus, the Ransom method became hugely popular, and continues to be so today.
Amusingly, when Henning did it on his TV special he used the Grant tape method.
For a fuller study of the history of this trick, see Max Maven's “Tracking Slum Magic to It Lair: The Needle through Balloon” in Gibecière, Vol. 9 No. 1, Winter 2014, p. 87.