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.
French ballooning began in
1783 when two paper-bag makers -- the Montgolfier
brothers -- began experimenting with hot-air
balloons. They made the first manned ascent on
November 21st, 1783, and eleven days later Alexandre Charles tested a manned
hydrogen-filled balloon. And the game was on.
Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time, and he
watched several of the first flights. When someone
asked what good they were, he gave his famous
answer: "What good is a new-born baby?"
For a while everyone was flying balloons, and they
were reaching altitudes that were limited only by
people's ability to breathe rarified air.
A man named Jean-Pierre Blanchard first flew four
months after the Montgolfiers. Blanchard became the
first barnstormer -- he took his balloons on the
road. That same year an expatriate American doctor
named John Jeffries hired Blanchard to take him
from England to France in a balloon. They didn't
speak a common language, but that didn't stop them
from reaching a fine dislike for each other. Still,
they did manage to make the first aerial crossing
of the English Channel.
Blanchard was an experimenter -- the first to drop
animals in parachutes and the first to try to
control his flights with sails and rudders. Then he
took his act to America.
In Philadelphia he arranged to make the first
American flight, on January 9th, 1793, nine years
after the first Montgolfier flight. The Quakers had
built a model prison that could be used to hide his
takeoff from non-paying observers. He arranged to
use it. Then he advertised in the Federal
Gazette that people could watch the ascent
for $5. He collected $400 and took off before a
crowd that included President Washington himself.
He landed in New Jersey and served his remaining
wine to local farmers, who in return gave his
balloon a lift into town on their wagon.
Blanchard died in Paris 16 years later, after
suffering a fall. He'd made sixty flights, and then
his wife continued in the business. Blanchard, by
the way, used hydrogen in preference to hot air.
His wife tried to improve the act with fireworks,
and after 59 flights she perished by igniting the
hydrogen in her balloon, over the Paris's Tivoli
Well, that's pretty awful, but their game wasn't
self-preservation -- it was excitement. And I'm
convinced that technology is driven by people's
excitements and enthusiasms far more than it's ever
driven by the pursuit of purpose.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Rolt, L.T.C., The Aeronauts. New York:
Walker and Company, 1966,
Crouch, T.D., The Eagle Aloft.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,
1983, Chapters 2, 3, 4.
Jackson, D. D., The Aeronauts. Alexandria,
VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.
This episode has been revised as Episode 1351
From the 1832 Edinburgh
The Montgolfier brothers' first man-carrying
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Blanchard's hydrogen balloon with paddles for
Click on the thumbnail for a
full size image
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From Harper's New Monthly
Artist's image of the death of Madame Blanchard
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