March 1, 2008


The cheers rising from inside Washington Prison Yard walls were soon followed by yells of pleasure from the multitudes of people gathered beyond the prison walls. The overflow crowd covered the city’s vacant lots and housetops, as well as on the hills for miles around. Half the city’s population was present.

It was mid-morning, January 9, 1793. The shops were closed, no trades were made and no business was being undertaken. Starting at sunrise, cannons discharged incessantly. An atmosphere of celebration and anticipation surrounded the city of Philadelphia.

Shortly after ten the crowd’s excitement peaked, as the multitudes watched a huge green silk balloon ascend into the skies. Its passenger observed the throngs from the basket hung below the balloon.

America’s first untethered manned hot air balloon flight had begun. Piloted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard, it carried the first United States airmail letter, a passport presented to him by President Washington that directed all citizens of the United States, and others, that they oppose no hindrance to the said Mr. Blanchard and help in his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.

The city remained closed until the balloon was lost to sight.

The crowd inside the prison yard included President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, Secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and the French ambassador.

How many among observers would agree with Benjamin Franklin, who, before his death three years earlier, had witnessed a balloon ascend in Paris. He had speculated that that flight would “probably give a new turn to human affairs.”

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The days before the event had been frenzied, filled with excitement. Blanchard cut a deal with the Quakers, who had built a model prison that offered means for hiding his takeoff from nonpaying watchers.

The daring voyager’s expenses usually exceeded his income, so he sold tickets to the Philadelphia event to finance his adventures. He advertised in the Federal Gazette: Come watch the ascent for five dollars a person! Although the tickets sold at $5.00 and $2.00 each, the event was a financial bust. Before taking flight, he collected $405 against $500 dollars’ worth of expenses.

Ticket-holders were entitled to watch the lift-off preparation inside the prison walls. Many Philadelphians chose to wait outside the walls and view the ascent for free.

Doubts about the propriety of men and women of decent character attending an event held at the prison were speedily removed. His ascension had the approval and support of President Washington, who saw the spectacle with members of his Cabinet.

Blanchard’s apparatus employed the reaction of sulfuric acid upon iron to produce the hydrogen that would lift him into the sky. He equipped himself with “ballast, meteorological instruments, and some refreshments,” and planned to take along a small black dog as companion.

At nine in the morning, on an unusually balmy winter morning, the inflation of the balloon began. The green taffeta bag was filled with “gaz,” produced by mixing iron chips in the vitriolic acid.

As Blanchard stepped into the basket at ten, George Washington presented him with a paper. A cannon fired, Blanchard threw out the ballast, and the balloon began its ascent. “Anxiety for the safety of the Aeronaut was painted on every face,” reported a journalist for Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser. “The Majestical sight,” noted the reporter, “was truly awful [i.e., awe-full] and interesting.”

There was a long moment of silent amazement that dissolved in cheering, and soon the balloon was beyond reach of the shouts. Many observers galloped down the Point road, hoping to overtake Blanchard. They soon returned, declaring that the balloon was out of their sight.

Blanchard noted that at 5,000 feet Philadelphia’s population, approaching 50,000, was now “a most minute and microscopic object.” During the flight he ate a biscuit, drank some wine, and performed several experiments requested by earthbound scientists: filling bottles with air, checking his pulse, and testing the effect of a magnetic stone.

Then he opened the balloon’s valve to begin his descent, landing in Gloucester County, New Jersey. His trip had lasted less 45-minutes.

A farmer came running to investigate. Although the farmer was illiterate and could not read Washington’s letter, and Blanchard spoke almost no English, the “exhilarating juice of the grape” (his remaining wine) quickly established a companionable atmosphere. Various locals helped Blanchard pack up his equipment, and carted his balloon into town on their wagon.

Blanchard headed back to Philadelphia. At seven that evening he was in the city once again, paying his respects to the President.

“I could not help being surprised and astonished, when, elevated at a certain height over the city, I turned my eyes toward the immense number of people, which 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!” Blanchard said.

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. (to read about Blanchard’s other aeronautical balloon adventures click on BLANCHARD: THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL AERONAUT



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  1. […] If you didn’t already know, a space traveler is on permanent display in Washington Square. A sycamore seed that traveled along with Apollo XIV was grown into a wee sapling and given to the citizens of Philadelphia, not terribly far from where the first hot air balloon was launched in the US. […]

    Pingback by The Bicentennial Moon Tree : The What — October 16, 2008 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

  2. Neat—thanks for contributing the information! I like sycamore trees… Carolyn

    Comment by carolyncholland — October 17, 2008 @ 3:44 am | Reply

  3. Just a note: the aircraft described here is not a hot air balloon. You describe a gas balloon, which is different. Hot air balloons are just what they sound like: balloons which obtain their lift from hot air, obtained by heating the air inside the envelope (“the balloon.”)

    Gas balloons instead use a captive lighter-than-air gas, such as helium or hydrogen.

    Gas balloons were the primary lighter-than-air method of manned flight until post World War II, when the modern era of “hot air ballooning” began– using burners to heat the air. Gas balloons today are very rare, with one main launch per year, at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

    Your tag lists ‘hydrogen gas for hot air balloons’ which is a bit of a misnomer. If it uses hydrogen, it isn’t a hot-air balloon! If you combined a hot-air heater with hydrogen, that would likely end poorly (see: Hindenburg 1937.)

    You *can* combine hot-air and gas (usually helium); such a combined system is called a Rozier.


    Jonathan R. Trappe

    Comment by Jonathan R. Trappe — November 3, 2009 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  4. Jonathan, thank you for your clarification. It’s nice that you took the time to comment. Carolyn C. Holland

    Comment by carolyncholland — November 3, 2009 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

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