Simanaitis Says

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JUST AS GEORGE Washington crossed the Delaware River in December 1776, within two decades Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard entered aviation history as the first person to fly in the U.S., also crossing the Delaware.

Blanchard’s 10-mile balloon trip was from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey. President Washington as well as future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were in attendance of this pioneering achievement on January 9, 1793.

Jean-Pierre (François) Blanchard, 1753–1809, French inventor and balloonist. Engraving after a portrait by Richard Livesay.

Blanchard made his first balloon flight in Paris on March 2, 1784, not long after the first manned free balloon ascent by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent de Vieux d’Arlandes, also above Paris, on November 21, 1783.

Blanchard’s balloon achieved its buoyancy from hydrogen gas. The Rozier/d’Arlandes ascent was in a hot-air balloon constructed by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Two months before the advent of human flight, on September 19, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent aloft the first living beings. French King Louis XVI had proposed using two convicts; the Montgolfiers chose a sheep named Montauciel, (“Climb-to-the-sky”), a duck, and a rooster for the historic eight-minute trip. It reached an altitude of about 1500 ft. and covered two miles.

Rozier and d’Arlandes soar above the Seine in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon.

This was all part of European balloonomania. Cited by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, one observer noted, “Among all our circle of friends, at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky.”

Benjamin Franklin and 16-year-old John Quincy Adams were among those witnessing these exploits above Paris. General George Washington learned of them, as documented in a letter, dated May 17, 1784, declining an invitation: “Genl. Washington presents his compliments to Doctr. Foulke [another American witness to the Paris flights]… and would with great pleasure attend his Lecture on Pneumatics, but the business which brought him to the city does not leave him at Liberty….”

Washington correspondence. Image from Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Later, Washington was president when he witnessed Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s first U.S. ascent. Blanchard launched his balloon, this time a hot-air device, from the prison yard of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, just around the corner from Independence Hall.

Walnut Street Goal [sic Gaol]. Image from an engraving by W. Birch & Son, 1800.

The balloon soared aloft, drifted across the Delaware River, then headed south for about 10 miles. Blanchard and his craft set down near the Clement Oak in Deptford, Gloucester County, New Jersey, now Deptford Township.

Blanchard achieved another first in his pioneer trip aloft: According to the Courier Post, in a sense he delivered the first air mail in the U.S. It was a note from President Washington to whomever owned the land on which Blanchard set down. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018.

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