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Blanchard, Jean-Pierre Franc¸ois

Jean-Pierre Franc¸ois Blanchard

French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809), one of the first great hot-air balloon voyagers, or aeronauts, became famous in Europe and the United States for his high-altitude feats. He and American doctor John Jeffries crossed the English Channel by balloon, becoming the first international air travelers, and he was the first balloonist to fly over several European countries. His 1793 flight from Philadelphia to New Jersey, the first aerial voyage in the United States, captivated America's capital city and was witnessed by U.S. President George Washington.

Blanchard's ballooning career led him to occasional failures and great tragedy. He was not the first to create a hydrogen balloon, and his own aerial inventions, heavier-than-air vehicles and attempts to add wings and sails to balloons, were failures. He spent four years in the United States trying to interest Americans in ballooning, but struggled financially and only flew in his balloon once (or perhaps twice) in the United States. He, his son, and his wife all died of injuries related to their ballooning endeavors. But his showman's sense of drama, from his staging of events to his fancy dress and flair for ceremony, helped attract the public to share his fascination with journeying through the skies.

His First Ascension

Born in Les Andelys, France on July 4, 1753, the son of a skilled craftsman, Blanchard showed an early, if peculiar, interest in invention. At age 12 he built a rat trap around a firing pistol. As a teenager, he built an early velocipede—a predecessor to bicycles—and rode it to the city of Rouen. He designed a hydraulic system that pumped water into the Chateau Gaillard from the Seine River, 400 feet below.

Fascinated with the flight of birds, in 1781 Blanchard built an unsuccessful flying machine with four wings for the pilot to flap using levers and foot pedals. He attempted to demonstrate it in Paris, France, in 1782, but it did not work, and a member of the French Academy of Sciences publicly declared that Blanchard was foolish and that humans would never fly. When Jacques-Etienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier built a successful hot-air balloon and demonstrated it for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1783, however, Blanchard decided to turn to ballooning.

Blanchard built his own hydrogen balloon and flew it for the first time in Paris on March 2, 1784. He toured around Europe, staging balloon ascensions, and came to dominate the first decade of ballooning. He was the first balloonist, or aeronaut, to make ascensions in Germany, Belgium, Poland, Austria, and the Netherlands.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard crossed the English Channel by balloon with American doctor John Jeffries, who financed the voyage. Traversing the 21-mile-wide channel made them the first international air travelers. They launched the balloon from the seaside cliffs of Dover, England. Attached were oars and a propeller, Blanchard's latest unsuccessful experiments meant to direct and propel his craft in the air. The two additions to the balloon did not work. In fact, about two-thirds of the way across the channel, the balloon began to leak. Blanchard and Jeffries threw the oars and propeller overboard, along with the bags of sand they had brought as ballast. As the balloon neared the French coast, it began to fall again, and the two men took off their coats and pants and threw them out, too, to lighten the load. They successfully touched down in Felmores Forest in France. Included in their cargo was a package of letters, the first international air mail, which they delivered successfully.

In August of 1785, Blanchard became the first aeronaut to travel more than 200 kilometers in the air with a flight from Lille to Servon. That same year, Blanchard also performed what is often credited as the first successful demonstration of a parachute. A basket attached to a parachute and containing a small animal, probably a dog, was dropped from a balloon and landed safely.

First In North America

After 44 flights in Europe, Blanchard took his balloon to the United States, intent on staging the first aerial voyage there. “The [Western] Hemisphere had as yet only heard of the brilliant triumph of aerostation [ballooning]; and the people who inhabit it appeared to me worthy of enjoying the sublime spectacle that it affords,” he wrote later in his Journal of My Forty-Fifth Ascension (as quoted by C.V. Glines in Aviation History). Blanchard wrote that he wanted to “convince the New World that man's ingenuity is not confined to earth alone, but opens to him new and certain roads in the vast expanse of heaven.” (Despite Blanchard's claim, a balloon ascension had already been staged in the United States. In 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland, 13-year-old Edward Warren had ascended in a small tethered balloon invented by lawyer and tavern-keeper Peter Carnes. But Blanchard's flight would be the first untethered balloon voyage in the country.)

Blanchard's American flight became his most celebrated and most thoroughly reported, surely because he staged it in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the capital of the United States at the time. For weeks, Blanchard ran an ad in Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, announcing his intention to ascend over Philadelphia in his balloon on January 9, 1793. He set up his balloon and hydrogen generator inside the grounds of the Walnut Street Prison, near what is now the city's Independence Square, figuring the prison walls would protect his equipment from vandals and keep winds from damaging the silk balloon as it inflated. He also hoped to charge people $5 to watch his takeoff, but since the balloon would be visible outside the prison as soon as it ascended, only about 100 people bought tickets, even after Blanchard lowered the price to $2. Though several people asked to join him in the balloon, Blanchard insisted on ascending solo. In case the wind took him out of Philadelphia and across the nearby rivers and woods, Blanchard also discouraged anyone from trying to follow him on horseback.

Almost the entire population of Philadelphia came out to watch Blanchard's balloon ascend, as well as many people from the nearby countryside. Cannons fired every 15 minutes that day, starting at 6 a.m., to remind people of the launch. A brass band played military music inside the prison to heighten the drama. Blanchard, by now an experienced showman, dressed for the occasion in a blue waistcoat and knee breeches and a white-feathered hat. U.S. President George Washington arrived by carriage to witness the event and was greeted by a 15-cannon salute. The French ambassador to the United States attended as well. Washington presented Blanchard with a presidential letter that he could show to anyone he encountered after landing—practical help for the aeronaut, since he spoke no English. A visitor gave Blanchard a small black dog to take with him on the flight, which he accepted reluctantly.

Blanchard took off, rising straight above Philadelphia at first. “I could not help being surprised and astonished when, elevated at a certain height over the city, I turned my eyes towards the immense number of people who covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads,” he wrote in Journal of My Forty-Fifth Ascension (as quoted by Glines in Aviation History). He waved a flag at the crowd.

The feat thrilled Philadelphians. “Seeing the man waving a flag at an immense height from the ground, was the most interesting sight that I ever beheld,” General John Steele, comptroller of the U.S. Treasury, wrote in a letter (as quoted by Glines in Aviation History), “and tho I had no acquaintance with him, I could not help trembling for his safety.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia citizen and friend of future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, later wrote in a letter (as quoted by Glines): “The conversation in our city has turned wholly upon Mr. Blanchard's late Aerial Voyage. It was truly a sublime sight. Every faculty of the mind was seized, expanded and captivated by it, 40,000 people concentrating their eyes and thoughts at the same instant, upon the same object.”

A slight breeze pushed Blanchard over the Delaware River, and he reached a height of about 5,800 feet. During the flight, he captured high-altitude air by pouring liquid out of six bottles and corking them. He also weighed a stone that had weighed 5 1/2 ounces on land and found it weighed 4 ounces. After traveling southeast, he released some hydrogen gas and some ballast and descended into a field near Woodbury, New Jersey, about 15 miles from Philadelphia. The voyage had lasted about 45 minutes. (The dog quickly ran away.) Some farmers, confused at first and unable to read the letter, but reassured by Blanchard's repetition of President Washington's name, transported him to a ferry that took him back to Philadelphia.

Financial Struggles

Blanchard remained in Philadelphia for some time after his flight, attempting to raise money to stage more ascensions, but bad fortune plagued his efforts. Ticket sales for his first flight and donations taken up outside the prison failed to raise the $1,500 in expenses he said the flight had cost. The governor of Pennsylvania allowed Blanchard to use an office in Philadelphia for free. There, Blanchard built a small museum, where he charged a small fee for visitors to see his balloon and basket, as well as a fanciful invention of his, a wheeled carriage that included an eagle with flapping wings, creating the illusion that the wings were powering the vehicle.

In June of 1793 Blanchard turned to another spectacle to attract customers: launching animals into the sky in tethered balloons. He sent a dog, cat and squirrel into the air attached to primitive parachutes, then propelled them out of the contraptions with small fuses and watched them float to earth. These ventures, too, raised little money. Blanchard finally left Philadelphia in 1795 during a yellow fever epidemic that made city residents afraid to go out in public.

That fall, Blanchard arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where he attempted to raise money and interest in another balloon flight, with little success. He got a better reception in Boston, sparking serious interest in ballooning. But while he was there, Jeffries, his former co-voyager across the English Channel, sued him for $370 and won. In 1796, Blanchard moved to New York and took on showman Gardiner Baker as his business partner, but financing was still scarce. Blanchard moved into a “balloon house” to construct a new balloon, but tragedy struck. A windstorm destroyed the house and killed Blanchard's 16-year-old son, Julien Joseph, who had been working on the roof. (Some sources suggest Blanchard flew in his balloon while in New York, but others disagree.)

Return to Europe

After staging a few more balloon flights with animal passengers, Blanchard returned to Europe in May of 1797. He returned to the sky, likely for the first time in four years, in Rouen, France, that August, one of 15 more balloon ascensions he staged in his life. He married his second wife, 18-year-old Marie-Madeleine-Sophie Armant, in 1798. She also became an aeronaut.

In 1808, Blanchard had a heart attack while on his 60th flight, over The Hague, in the Netherlands. He fell more than 50 feet from the balloon and never recovered from his injuries. He died in 1809. His wife, Marie, continued ballooning and became Europe's best-known female aeronaut. She died in Paris on July 16, 1819, falling out of her balloon to her death after fireworks set it on fire.

Books

Wallner, Alexandra, The First Air Voyage in the United States: The Story of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Holiday House, 1996.

Periodicals

Aviation History, September 1996. World & I, March 2006.

Online

“Blanchard, Jean-Pierre-Franc¸ois,” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9015591 (December 16, 2007).

“Celebrating a Century of Flight,” NASA.gov, http://history.nasa.gov/SP-09-511.pdf (December 29, 2007).

“Jean Pierre Blanchard,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, http://encarta.msn.com (December 29, 2007).

“Spring 2001 Newsletter,” FAI Ballooning Commission, http://www.fai.org/ballooning/newsletter/2001-spr.htm (December 29, 2007).

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