Today, we join George Washington at a balloon
ascent. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The first untethered manned
balloon flight was made on November 21, 1783. It
was Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier's famous hot air
ballon. Unmanned balloons had been laying hold of
Europe's imagination throughout that year. Four
months earlier, 16-year-old John Quincy Adams and
77-year-old Ben Franklin had watched as Alexandre
Charles tested an unmanned hydrogen balloon in
Paris. That was where someone asked Franklin what
use this all could be, and he gave his much-quoted
answer, "What good is a new-born baby?"
Soon everyone was flying, and they got to altitudes
limited only by their ability to breathe thin air.
Four months after the Montgolfiers, Jean-Pierre
Blanchard flew. But he changed the game. He took
his balloons on the road and became the first
In England an American doctor, John Jeffries, hired
Blanchard to fly him from England to France. They
had no common language, but that didn't keep them
from achieving a fine mutual dislike as they
skirmished over funding and credit for the flight.
Still, they made the first aerial crossing of the
English Channel in 1785.
Blanchard was an experimenter. He was first to drop
animals in parachutes and first to try controlling
his flights with flapping paddles. All that cost
him more money than he could raise. So he took his
act to America, where he hoped to do better. He
arranged to make the first untethered American
flight in Philadelphia on January 9, 1793. The
Quakers had built a model prison that offered means
for hiding his takeoff from nonpaying watchers. He
cut a deal with the Quakers and then advertised in
the Federal Gazette: Come watch the ascent
for five dollars a person!
He collected 405 dollars against 500 dollars' worth
of expenses and took off before a crowd that
included President Washington. He landed in New
Jersey, served his remaining wine to local farmers,
and they carted his balloon into town on their
Blanchard died sixteen years later after suffering
a heart attack on his 59th flight. After that his
second wife, Marie, continued the act. The problem
was, he'd used hydrogen in preference to hot air in
his balloons, and so did she. Then she made the
tactical error of improving the show with aerial
fireworks. Her flights were fine successes until
she made a flight over Paris's Tivoli Gardens in
1819. This time she set the
hydrogen on fire.
The gas burned off, and the balloon fell to a
rooftop. Marie Blanchard survived up to that point,
but she was spilled out onto the roof. She slid off
the edge and fell to her death in the street below.
That sounds like a pretty unhappy ending, of
course. But self-preservation was low on any
priority list of early fliers. Those primordial
balloonists were driven by excitement. And our best
technologies are always born in excitement and
enthusiasm -- far more than they are in any pursuit
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Crouch, T. D., The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of
the Balloon in America. Washington D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
Jackson, D. D., The Aeronauts. Alexandria,
VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Rolt, L. T. C., The Aeronauts -- A History of
Ballooning, 1783-1903. New York: Walker and
This is a revised version of Episode 39.
From the 1832 Edinburgh
The Montgolfier brothers' first man-carrying
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Blanchard's hydrogen balloon with paddles for
on the thumbnail for a full size
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
From Harper's New Monthly
Artist's image of the death of Madame Blanchard
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