Carolyn’s Online Magazine
UNTETHERED BALLOON FLIGHT
On the morning of January 9, 1793 no trades were made and no business was undertaken in Philadelphia. All the shops were closed.
Starting at sunrise two field artillery pieces inside the Walnut Street Prison courtyard fired every quarter hour, creating an atmosphere of celebration and anticipation.
As the early morning temperature rose into the 40s a 5-foot tall flamboyant Frenchman, Monsieur Jean-Pierre Blanchard, entered the courtyard. Dressed in bright-blue knee breeches, a matching waistcoat and a cocked hat with white feathers, he looked, for all intents and purposes, like a Shakespearean actor ready for his role in a great drama.
However, Blanchard was not an actor. Accompanied by the sounds of a brass band playing soul-stirring martial music he prepared to take America’s first hot air balloon flight. The famous Frenchman busied himself inflating his huge silk balloon with gaz, produced by mixing iron chips in the vitriolic acid, as a throng of spectators watched.
At 10:00, as Blanchard had promised, he was ready to start his 45th ascension, confident it would cause his name inscribed in America’s history books. His Journal of My Forty-Fifth Ascension states 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.’
When the United States chief executive, Gen. George Washington, arrived at 9:45 a. m. a hushed quiet descended on the crowd. As he, the French ambassador, and other dignitaries entered the courtyard fifteen cannons roared in salute and Blanchard removed his plumed hat, bowed briefly and exchanged pleasantries with his distinguished guests.
Towering over Blanchard, Gen. Washington presented the balloonist with a passport written by his own hand to be used as proof for the people Blanchard would meet after landing, proving he wasn’t an enemy of the United States, nor was he part of an advance guard of an airborne French invasion.
At the last minute a well-wisher shoved a small black dog into Blanchard’s arms. He rather dubiously accepted the dog, dropping it into the basket already laden with ballast—including meteorological instruments and some refreshments anxious friends had given him.
At 10:09 Blanchard affixed to the aerostat to the basket, thanked the president, confidently leapt into the balloon’s basket. The cannons fired a final salvo Blanchard as threw out some ballast and nodded to his assistants to release the restraining ropes. A gentle wind lifted the balloon skyward.
Thus America’s first untethered manned hot air balloon flight, carrying the first United States airmail letter, began.
Blanchard acknowledged the oohs, aahs, and cheers of the watching throng by waving his hat in one hand and a flag, 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.
Prior to the liftoff Blanchard had advertised the following notice in Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser: ‘If the day is calm…I 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.’
The day was calm. Blanchard’s balloon ascended perpendicularly and so easily Blanchard was able to enjoy the different impressions which agitated so many of the sensible and interesting persons observing.
The exuberance from the prison courtyard was quickly followed by yells of pleasure from a massive crowd—half the city’s population—waving their hats, lifting their hands, and shouting words of encouragement:
God Bless you!
Blanchard looked down on the city from a height of 1200 feet, probably astonished that all of Philadelphia watched him drift above the city. He heard the everyday echoes of their life rent the air: cries of an infant, barks of a dog prowling the alleys for food, the shout of a chimney sweep seeking work.
“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!,” he wwould later write in his journal.
Some spectators galloped down the Point road hoping to overtake Blanchard. They soon returned, declaring that the balloon was out of their sight. Many others regretted not stopping at the Oeller’s Hotel to purchase a ticket, sold by Blanchard—$5.00 for the best spot, $2.00 for back seats— because his expenses exceeded his income. By not doing so, they missed best spot to observe the most interesting scene the human eye ever beheld and to join President Washington, Vice President John Adams, and Secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, in doing so. Perhaps House of Representatives leader James Madison and James Monroe were also present.
The city remained closed until the balloon was lost to sight. However, people gathered for miles around on the surrounding hills and along the Atlantic coast were alerted by the cheers and yells. They watched the sky, hoping the balloon would fly in their direction. New Yorkers prayed for a sufficiently fair wind to direct Blanchard’s flight to their city.
Blanchard soared over Philadelphia like Icarus. From this unique vantage point he could easily see the entire square mile brick and wood city beneath him, beginning at the Delaware River and running west to Eighth Street, where the countryside’s unpaved roads began. He could see where the city ended at Vine Street, three blocks north of Market—the suburb of Northern Liberties was just beyond. Just one mile south the city ended at Cedar Street at the suburb of Southwark. He probably saw west as far as the Schuylkill River.
He saw ‘a whitish cloud (that) 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 took his balloon east across northern Philadelphia, floated past Market and Race streets, crossed Fourth, Third, then Second streets. He had a bird’s seagull’s eye view of the working-class section of the city, the most densely populated city neighborhood. He saw houses belonging to blacksmiths, cordwainers, furniture makers, and other artisans and tradesmen, who worked on the first floor and lived above their shops with their families.
How small the people on the crowded sidewalks looked, shoppers on the way to the markets, clerks heading to shops selling goods from all over the world, servants wending their way through the crowd to complete their errands. Their busyness was interrupted as they paused, looked up, pointed to, gasped, and commented to each other about this strange thing floating in the sky above them. Blanchard could hear some of their yells that alerted non-observers to the sight.
As Blanchard’s air transportation floated over Philadelphia between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers he easily spotted and identified three towering buildings that testified to Philadelphia’s status as the nation’s political, cultural and economic capital during the 1790s. The newly constructed Bank of the United States was located in south Philadelphia, the city’s political and financial sector. Two blocks westward the State House and Congress Hall stood tall. He also saw the large public library and the museum that held an almost complete collection of the minerals and animals of North America. These structures marked the city as the single great metropolis in this newly formed country, a metropolis most agreeable to foreigners. The city was a gathering place for people who cultivate literary and scientific inquiry.
The wind shifted as Blanchard floated toward the Delaware River, pushing his aircraft south towards Philadelphia’s port—the center of commercial life where leathery-handed stevedores on the dock looked skyward. He saw warehouses lining the riverside, and wooden wharves, jutting into the Delaware River, that welcomed ships from the Caribbean, Europe, and ports as distant as India and China. They came to trade goods for produce from the Atlantic breadbasket, as the fertile Delaware River valley was known.
The balloon rose, carrying Blanchard south, parallel with the Delaware River. From on high he saw the handsome new mansions along Society Hill, above the recently covered Dock Creek, where the nation’s elite held their elaborate salons and luxurious dinner parties.
A mild northwest breeze carried the balloon steadily upward to about 200 fathoms as it traveled toward the Delaware River. As the balloon finally leveled off in a state of perfect equilibrium at 5,800 feet Blanchard observed sparkling sunbeams on the water below, making the river appear like a ribbon the breadth of about four inches.
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 at the sound of the bird’s activity, but was reassured by a pat on the head from Blanchard.
While airborne Blanchard became an aeronautical scientist (the first test pilot in America), performing several experiments. He filled and sealed six bottles ‘with that atmospherical air wherein I was floating.’ He next used his pocket watch to time his pulse, carefully noting that airborne his pulse averaged 92, while earthbound it was no more than 84 in the same given time….’ He also weighed a lodestone that earthbound ‘raised 51Ž2 ounces avoirdupois’ but at his greatest altitude weighed only 4 ounces.’
As Blanchard floated through the sky the winds pushed him where they would. It balloon continued to drift southeasterly across the New Jersey side of the river in an increasing wind. Blanchard relaxed briefly, satisfying his appetite ‘with a morsel of biscuit and a glass of wine.’
Thinking he saw the Atlantic Ocean in the distance Blanchard prepared to descend. He carefully stowed his delicate instruments in boxes to prevent them from breaking on landing. He cleared several decorations from the side of the basket, valved out some hydrogen, and emptied several excess ballast bags overboard.
Then he guided the balloon in a downward course by carefully manipulating the gas valve and judging the weight of remaining ballast, steering it to a safe landing in an open, plowed field near Woodbury, N.J. 46 minutes after his departure from Philadelphia the first aerial voyage in America ended successfully after traveling about 15 miles.
Upon landing his canine passenger immediately debarked and made off for the nearest tree.
Blanchard worked quickly to release the gas from the silken globe then unloaded his instruments, checking them for breakage. Only his barometer was broken.
He next had to solve a common balloonist problem: how to return to Philadelphia. He sighted his compass toward the northwest and saw a farmer staring open-mouthed at him, a strange foreigner who dropped so silently from the skies.
Knowing little English, Blanchard yelled out in French, frightening the farmer, who stepped backward several paces. Blanchard, fearing he’d run away, held up the bottle of wine and gestured to him to share a drink. The husky farmer approached warily and took a sip, but only after the stranger downed a swig first. Blanchard soon had a willing helper, thanks to the medium of ‘the exhilarating juice of the grape.’
Although they couldn’t converse and the farmer couldn’t read the passport letter Blanchard carried, the farmer recognized Washington’s name Washington when Blanchard spoke.
A second farmer arrived, armed with an ancient musket. Frightened by the huge globe lying on its side, he dropped his gun and lifted his hands skyward in prayer. The first farmer explained what he understood of the situation again, the name Washington was understood. More people appeared and saw Washington’s letter, and everyone helped this intriguing stranger. Several men neatly folded his balloon and stowed it in a wagon. Others escorted him to Cooper’s Ferry on the banks of the Delaware River, where Blanchard crossed to the Pennsylvania side.
Before he bid his new-found friends goodbye he quickly drew up a document and asked them to certify ‘that we the subscribers saw the bearer, Mr. Blanchard, settle in his balloon in Deptford Township, County of Gloucester, in the State of New Jersey, about 10 o’clock 56 minutes, a.m….on the ninth day of January, anno Domini, 1793.’
Blanchard, arriving in Philadelphia that evening, was greeted by a cheering crowd of well-wishers who formed lines to shake his hand. At 7 p.m., he fisited President Washington and presented him with the flag he had borne aloft on his epic flight.
The experiment was pronounced a complete success. All manner of uses to which the balloon might be put were suggested in jest and earnest. Money was raised to pay back the four hundred guineas the experiment had cost Blanchard.
The brief flight deeply affected all who witnessed the takeoff. Dr. Benjamin Rush, in a letter to a colleague, wrote: ‘For some time days past 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, and all deriving nearly the same degree of pleasure from it.’