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Jean Pierre Blanchard: Made First U.S. Aerial Voyage in 1793

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A large crowd gathered outside the walls of the Walnut Street Prison that fronted on what is now Independence Square in Philadelphia at dawn on January 9, 1793. The occasion was not a hanging but a balloon launching, which, if successful, would be the first aerial voyage in the history of the new United States of America and the New World.

Jean Pierre Blanchard, noted French aeronaut, had advertised in Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser for several weeks that he would make a hydrogen-filled gas balloon ascension on that day ‘at 10 in the morning precisely, weather permitting.’ He had sold tickets at $5 each, and when not enough seats were reserved, Blanchard offered $2 seats in a special section behind the others. The tickets would admit the bearers inside the prison yard to view his departure. The excitement he generated was so great that almost the entire population of the capital city had turned out, in addition to a large number of visitors from the surrounding countryside.

A number of people wanted to go with him, but Blanchard was not about to share this ‘first’ with anyone. He also discouraged those who wanted to follow him on horseback. In a notice in the Federal Gazette, he noted, ‘If the day is calm, there will be full time to reach the prison courtasI will ascend perpendicularly; but if the wind blows, permit me, gentlemen, to advise you not to attempt to keep up with me, especially in a country so intersected with rivers, and so covered with woods.’

Two field artillery pieces positioned at Potter’s Field had been firing every quarter hour since 6 that morning, to remind the citizens of the great event. A brass band played soul-stirring martial music inside the prison yard as the famous Frenchman busied himself around the slowly expanding, varnished yellow silk bag. Dressed in bright-blue knee breeches, matching waistcoat and a hat with white feathers, the short, slender aeronaut looked like a Shakespearean actor readying himself for his role in a great drama.

The handsome, flamboyant Frenchman was confident that he was going to have his name inscribed in the history books of this new nation, just as he had done in Europe. The name Blanchard had completely dominated the aeronautical scene in the decade after Pilatre de Rozier’s epic untethered free flight in a hot-air balloon on November 21, 1783.

This was to be Blanchard’s 45th ascension. He had come to Philadelphia with a well-earned reputation in Europe. With Dr. John Jeffries, an American, he had sailed his balloon across the English Channel from England to France on January 7, 1785, making the pair the world’s first international air travelers.

The future aeronaut was born at Petit Andelys on July 4, 1750. He demonstrated early that he had an inventive mind. At age 12, he invented a rat trap which, when sprung, would cause a pistol to go off, assuring a rodent’s prompt demise. Four years later, he constructed a velocipede that he propelled from Petit Andelys to Rouen. Later, as a professional engineer, he designed a hydraulic pump system that raised water 400 feet from the Seine River to the Château Gaillard.

The young genius became intrigued with the flight of birds in 1781 and constructed an ornithopter with large wings that were flapped by the pilot, using hand and foot levers. Of course, the machine didn’t work. But when the Montgolfier brothers proved on June 5, 1783, that balloon flight was possible, the eager Blanchard turned his attention to this more sensible and attainable means of flight.

Blanchard built his first balloon a few weeks after the Montgolfier success and made his initial flight on March 2, 1784. From that time on he was a confirmed ‘balloonatic’ and traveled all over Europe giving demonstration flights. He was the first to make ascensions in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Austria, and he wanted to be first to sail the New World’s skies as well. So it was that Blanchard was in the new nation’s capital city that wintry day after 44 successful ascensions.

The zestful aeronaut explained in his Journal of My Forty-Fifth Ascension that he came to the New World because ‘the [Western] Hemisphere had as yet only heard of the brilliant triumph of aerostation [the art or science of ballooning]; and the people who inhabit it appeared to me worthy of enjoying the sublime spectacle that it affords.’ He added, ‘The eagerness which I thought I discovered in the public to see Montgolfier’s sublime discovery reduced to practice, everything seemed to tell me that I might, with confidence, display the mechanism of an aerostat [balloon], to make it soar above the clouds, and 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.’ Whether for money, fame, scientific research or fun, the daring aeronaut had thus far kept his promise to ‘display the mechanism of an aerostat.’

There were good reasons why Blanchard wanted to use the prison yard for his takeoff point. First, he needed protection from vandals for his balloon and the hydrogen-making ‘ventilator’ during the preparations. Second, the walls around the prison would assure that the brisk winter winds would not damage the bag during the inflation process. And last, he had to have money to ‘lighten the burden of my expenses.’ It would be easy to keep those without tickets from witnessing the departure. When the tickets were collected at the prison gate, however, only about 100 spectators had been admitted to an area that could have held an estimated 4,800 spectators. Most of the crowd had prudently decided they didn’t need to view the departure ceremony; they could witness the flight as soon as the daring aeronaut rose in his ‘aerostat’ above the prison walls.

There was a flurry of excitement outside the prison at a quarter to 10, when a carriage bearing President George Washington arrived. As the dignified chief executive stepped down, the crowd hushed respectfully. Fifteen cannons roared in salute. Inside the yard, Blanchard was ready. When the president approached, followed by the French ambassador and other dignitaries, Blanchard took off his plumed hat, bowed briefly and exchanged pleasantries with his distinguished guests.

‘At 9 minutes after 10,’ Blanchard wrote in his Journal, ‘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. Ternant, Minister Plenipotentiary of France to the United States.’

A well-wisher shoved a small black dog into Blanchard’s arms which he accepted rather dubiously. He dropped the animal into the basket and prepared to board. As Blanchard climbed into the wicker basket, President Washington shook his hand, wished him bon voyage, and handed him a ‘passport’ letter recommending ‘to all citizens of the United States, and others, that… they oppose no hindrance…to the said Mr. Blanchard’ and assist him in his efforts to ‘advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.’

Blanchard thanked the president, and as the artillery battery fired a final salvo, he threw out some ballast, nodded to his assistants Peter Legaux and Dr. Nassy to let go the restraining ropes, and was lifted gently skyward. Waving his hat in one hand and a flag in the other, he acknowledged the oohs and aahs of the crowd watching open-mouthed below.

‘My ascent was perpendicular and so easy,’ he said, ‘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 long have been to the pompous scenes of numerous assemblies, yet 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, over which my flight carried me in the free space of the air. What a sight!’

General John Steele, comptroller of the U.S. Treasury, was astonished at what he saw. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, ‘Seeing the man waving a flag at an immense height from the ground, was the most interesting sight that I ever beheld, and tho I had no acquaintance with him, I could not help trembling for his safety.’

Blanchard rose steadily upward. At about ‘200 fathoms,’ a mild breeze developed from the northwest and carried him toward the Delaware River. A flock of wild pigeons flew by and scattered into two groups, frightened at the sight of a human being invading their special realm. The small dog whimpered restlessly when he heard them flutter by, but was reassured by a pat on the head. Over the river, the balloon leveled off ‘in a state of perfect equilibrium in the midst of a stagnant fluid’ at 5,800 feet. As Blanchard proceeded slowly southeastward, he observed the sparkling sunbeams on the water below; he later wrote, ‘this river appeared to me like a ribband [sic] of the breadth of about four inches.’

Mindful that he intended to play the role of an aeronautical scientist, Blanchard became the first test pilot in America by performing a number of experiments during the flight. He filled six bottles ‘with that atmospherical air wherein I was floating’ and sealed them ‘as the accuracy of the experiment required.’

Next, Blanchard timed his pulse with his pocket watch. He carefully noted that ‘my observations gave me 92 pulsations in the minute (the average of 4 observations made at the place of my elevation) whereas on the ground I had experienced no more than 84 in the same given time….’

The scientist-aeronaut then weighed a lodestone that on the ground ‘raised 51ž2 ounces avoirdupois’ but at his greatest altitude weighed only 4 ounces. He made further notes concerning pressure and temperature before he turned to observations of the weather. He reported that ‘a whitish cloud withheld from my sight for several minutes a part of the city of Philadelphia….A thick fog covered the south; toward the east…a mist arose, which prevented me from reconnoitering the area.’

The wind began to increase, and the balloon continued to drift on a southeasterly course across the New Jersey side of the river. Blanchard relaxed briefly and satisfied his appetite ‘with a morsel of biscuit and a glass of wine.’ He thought he saw the Atlantic Ocean in the distance and made preparations to descend. Mindful that his delicate instruments might break on landing, he carefully stowed them in boxes, cleared away several decorations from the side of the basket, valved out some hydrogen, and emptied several excess ballast bags overboard.

Guiding its downward course carefully by manipulating the gas valve and judging the weight of remaining ballast, Blanchard steered the balloon to a safe landing in an open, plowed field near the town of Woodbury, N.J., 46 minutes after his departure from the City of Brotherly Love. He had traveled about 15 miles. His canine passenger immediately debarked and made off for the nearest tree. The first aerial voyage in America had been brought to a successful conclusion.

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