Means of Historical Travel: Early Air Balloons
A question in light of jets grounded across Europe because of volcanic ash particles: could a balloon fly through that? The era of airships is bygone and fast trains are far likelier to replace downed planes. But balloons, dirigibles and Zeppelins may still have their uses, perhaps beyond carnivals and aerial shots of baseball games.
In the first part of a new series on the early development of how people traveled, Historical Travel reports on the foundations of the airship industry.
A Frenchman and an American physician made the first successful flight over the English Channel in early January 1785. Their hot-air balloon flew from the cliffs of Dover to Calais, which can see England’s white cliffs across the Channel on a clear day. Jean Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries, a physician, didn’t have to fly far and they didn’t rest afterwards. Blanchard, according to the Library of Congress, “gave the first successful demonstration of a parachute” later that year “when a basket containing a small animal was dropped from a balloon and parachuted to earth.” No word on what that animal was — comments please.
Blanchard then made a sea-crossing to the new United States of America, where he was the first in North America to ever take to the skies in a balloon in 1793. He kept of journal of his record ascensions in which he described his test flights in Olympian terms and praised France, “a nation who places her chief glory in cherishing and protecting the sciences and the fine arts.” Again, the Library of Congress:
That day, he ascended from the Washington Prison Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey. Carrying the first airmail letter, this flight was observed by President George Washington. After that flight, Blanchard returned to Europe and, with his wife, Marie, who had also learned to fly balloons, performed many other exhibitions. In addition to his balloon flights in France and the United States, Blanchard is also credited with the first balloon flights in Germany, Belgium, Poland, and the Netherlands.
Never mind that Blanchard later fell out of his balloon fifty feet above The Hague after he had a heart attack mid-flight. The proof of air travel was there, along with a convincing case for parachutes.
Blanchard may not have designed the first flying balloons – that was credited to another Frenchman, Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier, a few years before Blanchard’s maiden voyage. Blanchard axed Meusnier’s idea of airscrew propellers and a rudder that steered the balloon like a flying sailboat, opting instead for a hand-powered propeller. Though in that early Channel flight, his balloon flew with flapping wings; Blanchard steered it with a bird-like tail. So much for jet engines.
Image of Blanchard and Jeffries’ English Channel crossing courtesy of Flickr user amphalon.
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