PHILADELPHIA (WHTM) — By 1793 Jean Pierre François Blanchard was a major pioneer in the barely 10-year-old technology of lighter-than-air flight.
He made his first ascent in a balloon he built himself on March 2, 1784, just a few months after Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first people to make an untethered flight, which was in a hot-air balloon built by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier.
Blanchard quickly racked up some firsts of his own. Between 1784 and 1793, he became to first to fly balloons in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland; experimented (unsuccessfully) with sails and windmills for steering and propulsion; and was the first to use a parachute in 1793. (That was an unplanned success — his balloon ruptured and he had to bail out.)
Early on he switched to hydrogen to fill his balloons, which gave more lift and, while quite flammable, didn’t require an open flame like the hot-air balloons.
Get daily news, weather, breaking news, and alerts straight to your inbox! Sign up for the abc27 newsletters here
The feat he is best known for came on Jan. 7, 1785, when he and an American companion, Dr. John Jeffries, became the first to cross the English Channel by balloon. They left from Dover Castle in England and arrived about 2 1/2 hours later in Guines, France.
By the time he came to the United States in 1792, he had made 44 balloon flights and was the world’s premiere aeronaut. For flight number 45, he planned to become the first person to fly a balloon in the New World.
Blanchard set up shop in Philadelphia, then the capital of the new nation. He was able to secure the use of the enclosed yard of the Walnut Street Prison. The walls helped protect the balloon from wind while it was being filled with hydrogen, protected it and support equipment from potential vandalism, and provided a gated area so Blanchard could charge admission to see the launch.
A number of dignitaries attended, including one George Washington, President of the United States. Washington presented Blanchard with a letter calling on citizens of the country to “receive and aid him” wherever he landed. (Besides President Washington, the spectators included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — the first five Presidents gathered in one place, though of course, no one knew it at the time.)
A little after 10 a.m., Blanchard climbed into the gondola and signaled his helpers to let go, and the balloon climbed into the sky as he waved his hat and a flag (American on one side, French on the other).
A mild breeze from the northwest sent the balloon traveling out over the Delaware River. Blanchard measured his height with a barometer as the balloon rose to 5,800 feet. He tested a magnet, finding it could only lift about 4 ounces, though it held 5.5 ounces on the ground. He checked his pulse at the highest altitude with a pocket watch, and determined it was 92 beats per minute, as opposed to 84 beats at ground level. He also took air samples, emptying fluid from six bottles and sealing in the air that replaced the fluid.
Forty-five minutes after he took off, Blanchard landed his ballon in a clearing near Woodbury, New Jersey. Soon residents gathered to gawk at the bizarre contraption that had dropped from the sky into their lives. Blanchard spoke no English, and it’s unlikely any of the Americans spoke French, but the letter and the name “Washington” worked their magic. Before long they had the balloon rolled up and stashed in a wagon, and got Blanchard to Cooper’s Ferry on the Delaware River. He returned to Philadelphia and cheering crowds early that evening.
But while he had the adulation of the crowds, Blanchard made nowhere near as much money as he’d hoped from his demonstration. There wasn’t much incentive for people to pay $5 — about $84 in today’s money — when they could stand outside the prison and get a perfectly good view of the flight from there. He stayed in the United States for a few more years, then returned to Europe and carried on ballooning until his death on March 7, 1809, at the age of 56.
Pass for Jean-Pierre Blanchard (From the National Archives):
“[Philadelphia, 9 January 1793] to all to whom these presents shall come.
“The bearer hereof, Mr. Blanchard a citizen of France, proposing to ascend in a balloon from the city of Philadelphia, at 10 o’clock, A.M. this day, to pass in such direction and to descend in such place as circumstances may render most convenient—These are therefore to recommend to all citizens of the United States, and others, that in his passage, descent, return or journeying elsewhere, they oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard; And, that on the contrary, they receive and aid him with that humanity and good will, which may render honor to their country, and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.
“Given under my hand and seal at the city of Philadelphia, this ninth day of January, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three, and of the independence of America the seventeenth.