Jeffries, John (1745-1819)
John Jeffries (1745-1819)
Physician and balloonist
Boston. John Jeffries, born on 5 February 1745, probably never dreamed that he would be the first American to fly. Jeffries was a thirty-two-year-old Boston physician when the Revolutionary War began in 1775. He was also a Loyalist in a place where loyalty to America’s last king was not only unpopular but also dangerous. He had graduated from Harvard twelve years earlier and had continued his studies in England and Scotland. Returning to Boston, he married, became assistant surgeon on a British naval vessel, and settled into the predictable and profitable life of a doctor. Boston was a hotbed of anti-British sentiment during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and early 1770s, but Jeffries never embraced the radical cause although his father was an avowed Patriot. He does not appear to have made many enemies, however, a fact that benefited him after the war.
Exile . Jeffries and his family, along with some fifteen hundred other Loyalists, remained in Boston during the American siege of that town and evacuated with the British forces in 1776. Jeffries worked as a surgeon in the British military hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, until 1779, when he moved his family to London so he could lobby for a more permanent position in the medical service. He got the position he wanted in New York (then in British hands), and set sail for America to prepare the way for his family. In his absence his wife died. Heart-broken, Jeffries resigned his commission and returned to London to join the growing community of exiled Americans there.
Balloon Experiments . He was more fortunate than many exiles, for he was able to support himself and his children by setting up a small medical practice, but an event changed the direction of his life yet again. In May 1783 the Montgolfier brothers had launched the first successful but unmanned hot-air balloon in France. More trials followed until, on 21 November, a French balloonist made the first free flight over the cheering crowds of Paris. Four days later Jeffries attended an unmanned British experiment in London and was immediately enthralled. After watching the first manned, freeflight ascensions in England the next year, Jeffries decided no longer to be merely a spectator. Seduced by the lure of flight, and recognizing the balloon’s potential for conducting atmospheric experiments, he begged French balloonist Pierre Blanchard to take him along on his next flight. The Frenchman obliged, provided that Jeffries cover virtually all expenses. Jeffries quickly agreed.
First Flight . On 29 November 1784, despite the sobs of his children and several female admirers who begged him not to take the risk, Jeffries boarded Blanchard’s “flying boat.” While London’s “four millions of others (Idlers, thieves, Pickpockets, Princes royal. Nobles &c)” looked on, Blanchard and Jeffries rose quickly above the city. The earth “appeared to run away from us,” he later wrote, and, rising above the low clouds, the ground reminded him of “a beautiful coloured map...not having the least appearance of hill, elevation...or inequality of surface whatsoever.” After a somewhat hazardous landing some seventeen miles away in Dartford, Kent, Jeffries returned to a hero’s welcome in London.
Crossing the Channel . His taste for flight was by no means satisfied, however; Blanchard planned to make his way home in the next month or so by flying his balloon across the English Channel, and Jeffries was determined to go with him. On 7 January 1785 he got his wish, and the two now-famous aeronauts took off from Dover, wafting on the cold breeze toward Calais. This time the two had brought books, instruments, food, and heavy clothing for the trip, and the extra weight was almost their undoing. The balloon began losing altitude before they were a third of the way across, and part of the balloon even collapsed, threatening to drop them into the frigid Channel far below. The balloonists responded by throwing everything they could spare over the side; first all the ballast, then the books, food, anchors, most of the scientific equipment, and even their outer clothing. It was all to no avail; the balloon was little more than one hundred yards from the water and still four miles from land when a sudden low-pressure pocket lifted them clear of the sea and over the low hills of coastal France. They had another hazardous landing, this time in a forest, but they had made it—the first men to cross the English Channel by air.
Return Home . Jeffries enjoyed the next two months as the toast of Paris, receiving an interview with King Louis XVI and even dining with Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones. Jeffries retained his interest in balloon flight but never flew again. He was allowed to return to his homeland, the new United States, in 1789, and he resumed a profitable practice in Boston. For the rest of his days he lead the relatively quiet life he had no doubt expected before the Revolution intervened, and with it the train of events that had brought him fame. He died on 16 September 1819.
Mary Beth Norton, “America’s First Aeronaut: Dr. John Jeffries,” History Today, 18 (October 1968): 722-729;
L. T. C. Rolt, The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783-1903 (New York: Walker, 1966).