Today in History: French Balloonist Takes the First Balloon Flight in the U.S.
by M.C. Millman
Jean-Pierre Blanchard sparked a national interest in ballooning when he took the first balloon flight in the U.S. on January 9, 1793.
According to Britannica, Blanchard, the famous French balloonist, made his first ascent in Paris in 1784. He then made multiple exhibit flights in Europe before making his way to the U.S.
Arnold Konheim, a contributor to the Washington Library, wrote that Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard was the leading European aeronaut, having made 44 ascents.
Blanchard arrived in Philadelphia, the nation's capital, in January 1793. He then announced that tickets were for sale for the first balloon flight in the United States.
On the morning of January 9, many influential figures gathered in the crowd, including President George Washington and other government officials. The Pennsylvania Gazette reports that inflating the balloon began at about 9:00 a.m.
President Washington presented Blanchard with a "passport," guaranteeing his safe passage wherever he landed because the French man did not speak English.
According to National Archives, the document reads as follows:
George Washington, President of the United States of America, to all to whom these presents shall come. The bearer hereof, Mr. Blanchard, a citizen of France, proposing to ascend in a balloon from the city of Philadelphia at 10 o'clock a.m. this day, to pass in such direction and to descend in such place as circumstances may render most convenient— These are therefore to recommend to all citizens of the United States, and others, that in his passage, descent, return or journeying elsewhere, they oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard; and, that on the contrary, they receive and aid him with that humanity and goodwill which may render honor to their country, and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.
The Pennsylvania Gazette reports that at 10:05 a.m., Blanchard was lifted from the Walnut Street Prison yard while a music band played. The newspaper article read, "The majestic sight was truly awful and interesting—the slow movement of the band added solemnity to the scene. Indeed the attention of the multitude was so absorbed that it was a considerable time e'er silence was broken by the acclamations which succeeded."
Several men tried to follow the balloon but soon lost sight of it because it traveled at 20 miles per hour. Blanchard landed forty-five minutes later in Deptford, New Jersey, 15 miles from his departure location.
After this flight, Blanchard returned to Europe to perform many other exhibitions. As written in Britannica, Blanchard was injured in February 1808 when he suffered a heart attack on a flight over The Hague and fell more than 50 feet. He never recovered from that fall and died on March 7, 1809.
photo credit: Flickr