Flights of Fancy: a short history of Ballooning
by Arthur Eccles
Part 1 : Love is in the air
LONDON, Saturday, May 7, 1785
This day Mr. Blanchard made another experiment in his new balloon apparatus, and afforded a most brilliant spectacle of the new and wonderful invention of aerostation. At twelve he fixed himself in his boat, and began to manoeuvre, ascending higher than the houses, and then descending, after moving from the end of the yard to another, which he accomplished with infinite ease, by means of machines invented by himself. After having satisfied his numerous subscribers, he got out of the boat, and, by particular desire of several persons of distinction, Miss Simonet, (his companion in his last voyage) was elevated alone several times, amidst the acclamations and huzzas of the beholders, for the space of a quarter of an hour, after which time she descended, and Mr. Blanchard, having placed the cords to which the balloon was attached in the boat, and ordered a small balloon to be let off (which bore its course nearly East) he seated himself in his boat and rose in the most majestic manner possible, making a beautiful appearance: he saluted the populace very often, waving his flag, standing up several times, and turning round his hat. The reflection of the sun on his balloon, and particularly on his oars, which were red and green, formed a pleasing coup d'oeil, that could be scarcely conceived by the most fanciful romantic imagination; the balloon continued in sight for a long time, bearing its course down the Thames, and is said to have been seen with glasses in the evening in a direct line for the river Texel in Holland.
|Mr. Blanchard's weight is exactly------||114|
|Boat and apparatus -------------------||45|
|Ballast he took with him ---------------||70|
Blanchard did not reach Holland, nor did he anticipate doing so. He landed safely back near London and prepared for his next romantic encounter with the air, which took place just five days later, as reported in the Bath Journal.
London, May 12, 1785 Mr. Blanchard, on Tuesday, after several evolutions in the air, descended with his balloon near Hill-House Ferry, beyond Lee-Bridge. From this place, Mr. Blanchard and the lady ascended again, when three gentlemen on horseback kept the balloon at a certain distance above the ground. In this manner the balloon was conducted to town. Nothing could be more pleasing than this sight. When the procession arrived at Barbican, Miss Simonet alighted, Mr. Blanchard reascended, and came down again about half past five, in the place from whence he set off.
At this point, let's leave Mr. Blanchard floating romantically in the rarefied air, rise in our own aerostat, head due East, and travel back a short distance in time to where these flights of fancy all began near Paris, France.
Even before Leonardo Da Vinci set quill to paper, men had dreamed of flying. But it took two very intrepid and dedicated brothers in France to finally make the idea of manned flight a reality: Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiére. Joseph had first conceived the idea to “introduce” French soldiers into the impregnable fortress of Gibraltar in 1782. By constructing a paper bag filled with subtle inflammable air, and making it large enough, he thought, ‘It will be possible to introduce into Gibraltar an entire army, which, borne by the wind, will enter right above the heads of the English.'
This was all apropos to their family situation, since they were in the paper making business and – thanks to the patronage of the Kings of France – were awarded the title of Royal Manufactory. Experiments began in 1782, and soon – April 3rd, 1783, to be exact – an improved “trial balloon” looking like a large soufflé was set aloft – and immediately sent to ground by a strong wind. On the 25th of that month, the wind became more cooperative and the unmanned balloon made a perfect ascent to 1,000 ft.
After many more experiments, the first “public” ascent of a Montgolfiére balloon was set for June, 1783 at Annonay, which culminated in the need for more experimentation. Finally, after overcoming numerous difficulties, a perfected “trial balloon” was set to rise from the Place des Victoires in Paris On August 27, 1783, but was moved to the more spacious Champ de Mars, where it was surrounded by thousands of curious French citizens. Crowds grew in the avenues and streets – and on rooftops – to witness the event. Astronomers and other members of Academe were poised on the towers of Notre Dame and the roof of l'Ecole Militaire, with telescopes at the ready.
A single cannon shot trumpeted the start of the Globe's ascent, and the spectators stood in awe as the balloon rose slowly and majestically. Even though a sudden shower of rain fell nobody appeared to notice it. In two minutes the Globe soared to a height of 3,000 ft., disappeared into a rain cloud, and emerged into clear sky. It's reappearance was saluted by another cannon shot, and the crowd continued to be mesmerized by the gravity-defying balloon until it disappeared over the Paris skyline and gently wafted its way into the countryside. In addition to being a wonderful day for pickpockets, this proved to be a great day in French aviation history.
The French peasants at Gonesse, 12 miles away where the balloon landed, were of a different mind. Fearful that some monster had descended from the skies, they proceeded to attack the balloon with muskets and pitchforks until it surrendered – rendering it hors de combat and not fit for further flight.
This event prompted the French Government to issue the following proclamation:
Advertisement au peuple on the ascent of balloons or globes in the air. The one in question has been raised in Paris this said day, 27th August, 1783, at 5 p.m., in the Champ de Mars.
A discovery has been made, which the Government deems it right to make known, so that alarm be not occasioned to the people.
On calculating the different weights of inflammable and common air, it has been found that a balloon filled with inflammable air will rise towards heaven till it is in equilibrium with the surrounding air; which may not happen till it has attained a great height.
The first experiment was made at Annonay, in Vivarais, by MM. Montgolfiére, the inventors; a globe formed of canvas and paper, 105 feet in circumference, filled with flammable air, reached an uncalculated height.
The same experiment has just been renewed at Paris (27th August, 5. p.m.) in presence of a great crowd. A globe of taffetas, covered by elastic gum, 36 ft in circumference, has risen from the Champ de Mars, and been lost to view in the clouds, being borne in a north-easterly direction; one cannot foresee where it will descend.
It is proposed to repeat these experiments on a larger scale. Any one who shall see in the sky such a globe (which resembles ‘la lune obscurie'), should be aware that, far from being an alarming phenomenon, it is only a machine, made of taffetas, or light canvas covered with paper, that cannot possibly cause any harm, and which will some day prove serviceable to the wants of Society.
The Government's public relations scheme had the desired effect, and paved the way for the next impressive balloon ascension scheduled for September 14th at Versailles in the presence of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The widely spread rumor that a man would ascend in the balloon proved to have no foundation, as Louis XVI had denounced the idea as being far too perilous. In the place of man, a wicker cage containing a sheep, a cock and a duck was attached to the balloon.
While the great blue and gold Globe strained at the ropes, its cargo of livestock crammed into the cage below, a countdown of three cannon shots commenced. As the smoke cleared from the final shot, the balloon sailed into the air to great applause and gazes of wonder. It rose majestically, but only to a height of 1,700 feet, and calmly floated off with its precious cargo toward the forest of Vaucresson only two miles distant, where two gamekeepers saw it descend.
The most enthusiastic spectators followed the course of the balloon on foot, and the first to reach it was a young scientist by the name of Francis Pilâtre de Rozier. When he arrived, de Rozier found that the wicker cage had been broken open and all the animals had escaped. The sheep was grazing placidly. The duck waddled along unperturbed, but the rooster had slightly damaged one of its wings. All in all, it was a very successful flight. No diaries have been left behind by the animals, so we can only surmise what they thought of the experience.
The King was pleased, the crowd was awed, and de Rozier was ‘hooked'. He was soon to pilot the first manned balloon and set the stage for other knights of the sky who made aerostatic ballooning history: namely, Tytler (the first citizen of the British Isles to ascend in a balloon, Edinburgh, August 25, 1784); Lunardi, the dashing young Italian (the first to pilot a balloon in England, September 15, 1784); Sadler (the first Englishman to ascend in a balloon, October 4, 1784); Blanchard and Jeffries (the first to cross the English Channel in a balloon, January 7, 1785); and Sir Richard Crosbie (The first balloon ascension in Ireland, Jan. 19,1785). Crosbie also wore the first Aeronaut's uniform, or “flying clothes”, consisting of a long coat of “oiled silk lined with fur, a waistcoat and breeches of quilted satin, morocco boots and Montero leopard skin cap.”
Many daring and adventurous women were also included in these ranks: Madame Thible the prima donna and first female aeronaut, who sang an operatic selection as she rose in the balloon, thus becoming the first person to broadcast music from the air (June 4, 1784); the daring young French girl/sometimes stage actress, Marie Simonet (“First female Aerial Traveler in the English atmosphere”, May 3, 1785); Mrs. Sage, the first English woman to ascend in a balloon (piloted by George Biggin, distinguished Etonian, June 29, 1785); Madame Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin, the first woman to make a solo ascent in a balloon, and the first woman to make a parachute descent from a balloon (1798); and the ‘bird-like' Madame Blanchard, Napoleon's favorite aeronaut.
Join them among the clouds and crowds in the next article…
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“Flights of Fancy: A short history of Ballooning. ”