Thursday, March 7, 2019

First US balloon flight

Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a pioneer of balloon flight, died 210 years ago today. His first successful flight was made in Paris in 1784, but by 1793 he had crossed the Atlantic to make the first ever balloon flight in North America, an event witnessed by President George Washington. Blanchard published a journal of the experience - inscribed to Washington - which may have the distinction of being the briefest diary ever published.

Blanchard was born in 1753 in Les Andelys, France, the son of a skilled craftsman. He showed an early interest in inventing things, such as a firing pistol rat trap, an early velocipede, and a hydraulic system that pumped water from the Seine uphill to a chateau. In 1774, he married Victoire Lebrun, and they would have four children - though, in time, he would abandon her, and she would die in poverty.

Blanchard’s fascination with birds led him to build a flying machine with four wings with pilot-operated levers and pedals, but it didn’t work. However, when a balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, was successfully demonstrated in 1783, Blanchard, too, turned to balloons. He made his first successful flight the following year. He soon moved to London, where after two flights, he and John Jeffries, an American physician, successfully flew across the Channel for the first time. The achievement was praised and rewarded by King Louis XVI.

Over the next few years, Blanchard toured Europe, demonstrating balloon flights wherever he went, and notching up first flights in many countries. In 1791, he gave a balloon performance during the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague. As well as developing his balloon expertise, Blanchard also contributed to the development of the modern parachute, invented a few years earlier by fellow Frenchman Sébastien Lenormand. Although Blanchard’s early demonstrations involved dogs, he, too, was forced to use a parachute once when his balloon ruptured in flight.

Arriving in 1793, Blanchard spent several years in North America. That year, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the capital of the United States, he demonstrated balloon flight for the first time in North America - an event witnessed by President George Washington, and, in fact, by several future presidents also. Blanchard remained in Philadelphia until 1795, and then moved to Charleston, Boston and New York, mostly giving performances of tethered balloon flights with animals. Generally, his attempts to secure funding for further manned balloon attempts were ill-fated, for lack of investment or bad luck. 

Blanchard returned to France in 1797, where he was able to raise enough interest for a dozen more balloon flights. He married his second wife, Sophie Armant, in 1804 who also became a balloonist. In early 1808, Blanchard suffered a heart attack while in his balon, and fell to the ground. He died a year later, on 7 March 1809, leaving behind many debts. Sophie continued to support herself with balloon demonstrations, but she also died in a balloon accident, in 1819. Further, information on the Blanchards is available at Wikipedia,, Normandy Then and Now, and the SciHi Blog.

Soon after the first US flight, Blanchard published an account of the event. He inscribed this to George Washington and titled it Journal of my forty-fifth ascension, being the first performed in America, on the ninth of January, 1793. The booklet runs to only 26 pages long, and, as it concerns but a single day, it might well be considered the shortest diary every published. A reprint by William Abbatt from 1918 is freely available online at Internet Archive.

Blanchard’s preface reads as follows: ‘Having so happily succeeded in the 45th attempt of my aerial flight, in the presence of the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia, I thought I could still afford them some pleasure, by offering to them an accurate description of the operations preparatory to this ascension, and by acquainting them with my various situation during this excursion, as well as with the motives which induced me to a return, and the means I made use of to accomplish it.

I will then account for the thoughts and feelings which agitated my breast at the time of my ascension: I will display them with confidence, to those candid and feeling men whose eye traced me across the vast expanse of the aerial regions.

To such as are not unacquainted with the mechanism of the aerostat, some of these details may appear trifling and superfluous; but as I felt them, I will therefore describe them: nor do I think I should be justifiable in concealing from the curious public any part of the operations which attended so extraordinary an experiment, of which they for the first time witnessed the complete success.

And here I request the indulgence of my readers for the style of my narrative - Elegance is not what I aim at in this performance: Truth is intended as its sole ornament.’

The following is part of the text of the brief journal, though I have removed various meteorological readings for ease of reading.

9 January 1793
‘At 9 o’clock the mist dissipated, the sky was wrapt in thin clouds, pervious to the rays of the sun; wind S. W. Reaumur’s thermometer [various meteorological figures]

At ½ past 9, the sun which broke in through the clouds dissipated them in such a manner that they appeared no more than cobwebs on the irradiated atmosphere - A gentle westerly breeze [figures].

The hour fixed for my departure now drew near, and I was anxious to keep my word with a numerous people, whom repeated discharges of the artillery of the city had already forewarned of the execution of my experiment; I then disposed in order all the apparatus requisite for my observations: I adapted Reaumur’s thermometer to the center of an excellent barometer, in order to rectify, with the greatest possible exactness, the degrees of expansion or condensation which the mercury in the barometer should undergo by the changes in the temperature of the air. The altitude, as corrected at that time, [figures]

At 10 o’clock, the sky was still finer and clearer; a light breeze from the W. N. W. [figures]

Already the balloon, inflated by the inflammable gas, lifted itself from the ground, and having assumed its spherical form, was equally pressed on all the points of its concave surface. Already specifically lighter than the column of air which it had displaced, it hovered majestically in the middle of that fluid in a vertical situation, striving to break loose from the fastening which held it by its base and reluctantly kept it down. Repeated experiments have made these various circumstances so many data from which to determine the moment of my departure.

At 9 minutes after 10, the sky being clear, serene and propitious, little wind and nearly calm at the surface of the earth; [figures] I affixed to the aerostat my car, laden with ballast, meteorological instruments, and some refreshments, with which the anxiety of my friends had provided me. I hastened to take leave of the President, and of Mr. Ternan, Minister Plenipotentiary of France to the United States. I then received from the President the most flattering mark of his good will in the passport which he was pleased to deliver to me with his own hand. I never felt the value of glory so much as I did in that moment, in the presence of a Hero, whom she had constantly attended at the head of armies, and with whom she still presided over the councils of his country.

The moment of my departure was announced by the last discharge of the artillery; I then ascended my car, studied the proportions of aerial gravities, and threw out as much of my ballast as appeared necessary to leave the aerostat at liberty, and to render my ascent certain. I soon found myself possessed of every requisite; I felt myself balanced at 15 inches from the ground. This was all I wished for; I requested Messieurs Nassy and Legaux, who held the aerostat, to let it loose.
My ascent was perpendicular, and so easy that I had time to enjoy the different impressions which agitated so many sensible and interesting persons, who surrounded the scene of my departure, and to salute them with my flag, which was ornamented on one side with the armoric bearings of the United States, and on the other with the three colors, so dear to the French nation. Accustomed as I have long been to the pompous scenes of numerous assemblies, yet I could not help being surprized and astonished, when, elevated at a certain height over the city, I turned my eyes towards the immense number of people which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads over which my flight carried me in the free space of the air. What a sight! How delicious for me to enjoy it! This people naturally serious and reflecting, whose mirth is so much more true and national, as it is not apt to give away to the transports of the moment, shewed from all parts the most unequivocal marks of astonishment and satisfaction: I, for a long time, followed their rapid motions: for a long time could I hear the cries of joy which rent the air: I thought myself carried on the vows of their hearts. I had at that instant nothing but the success of my voyage to answer for my gratitude, and the waving of my colours to express the same. At present I make it my duty to express the same in this feeble essay; may it be agreeable to the inhabitants of a city whose approbation is so glorious for me.

I still continued to rise; the calm state of the atmosphere, whereinto I had now launched, offered no kind of difficulty, and I followed the ascending motion of my aerostat with a gradual uniformity, at once easy and majestic.

I was at a perpendicular height of 200 fathoms, when I felt a somewhat stronger breeze spring up, which carried me in an easterly direction towards the Delaware: here I met a numerous and thick flock of wild pigeons: they seemed to be much frightened. Alas! it was never my intention in traversing the ethereal regions to disturb the feathered inhabitants thereof: they separated into two different parties and left a passage open for me. I soon perceived them again at a great distance from me. I ascended constantly, being carried towards the south-east by a light and pleasant breeze. At 10h. 10m. I let go my anchor, to serve as a point of observation, keeping the same course, though rather a little more to the southward.

At 10h, 19-20-21m. bearing constantly towards the S. S. E. my ascent became more rapid, owing solely to the dilatation of the inflammable gas which filled the balloon. At this moment my position was perpendicular over the middle of the Delaware, which the reflecting sunbeams painted to my eyes of a transparent white; and at the height I was then at, this river appeared to me like a ribband of the breadth of about four inches.

At 10h. 35m. being now in a much more rarified fluid, and the force of the inflammable gas having increased in proportion to its dilatation, the aerostat was soon raised to the highest elevation which it is susceptible of. I had lost nothing of my ballast consisting of four bags and an half filled with sand, containing 24lb. English weight each, together 108 lb. A little black dog, which a friend had entrusted to me, seemed to feel sick at this height; he attempted several times to get out of the car; but finding no landing-place he took the prudent part to remain quietly beside me: the whining of this little animal raised nevertheless reflections in my mind, which would have affected me very much, had not the view of the country, whose vast extent was expanded before my eyes, opened my mind to softer and more agreeable contemplations.’

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