Jean Pierre François Blanchard was born in Petit Andelys, the second son of an odd-job man, on July 4, 1753. Perhaps the vast remains of Chateau Gaillard that tower above the town inspired him to the possibilities of human endeavour. Whatever the cause, Jean Pierre was destined to go down, sometimes literally, in history.
The young inventor
Jean Pierre was something of an engineering genius. Self-taught, his brilliance was only exceeded by his ambition and arrogance. Early indications of his inventive mind were the development of a rat trap with pistol, and a velocipede (foot powered horseless carriage) that took him from Petit Andelys to Rouen in three and a half hours.
The velocipede gained him a reputation as an engineer and inventor and age just 16 he was on his way to Paris. There Jean Pierre demonstrated his Velocipede to the director of royal buildings, comte d’Angieviller, and put on regular displays along the Champs Elysees. The 18th century was a great age of patronage for the sciences and Jean Pierre’s inventions were gaining him a steady stream of investors.
Age just 25, on 2 February 1779 Jean Pierre demonstrated a hydraulic system that pumped water 180 meters from the river Seine to Château Gaillard. Invitations to demonstrate at Chateau de Vernon and in Grenoble failed to secure aristocratic patronage, apparently because of the high price. But he did raise enough support to be able to focus on inventing what he believed would be a real money maker. A flying machine.
Rain stops play
By 1882, under some pressure from investors, Jean Pierre announced the first public demonstration of his flying carriage. He had studied birds and created the Vaisseau Volant (flying vessel) with four wings flapped by pedals and pulleys, and two hand levers. Apparently it worked very well when no-one was around.
Rather good at PR, Jean Pierre put flying machine on show to the public ahead of the demonstration and became the must-see hit of the season.
On 5 May 1882 a large crowd gathered, in spite of the rain. Rain that stopped any chance of the flying machine taking off. The crowds were unimpressed and his reputation was in tatters. The newspapers, once avid supporters, printed some rather unkind articles. The Journal de Paris of 23 May 1782 published a rather mocking song alongside a list of the sort of ‘disreputable’ persons who may take advantage of the new invention including a frivolous abbe (abbe de Viennay of the Paris parlement was his chief supporter) and gentlemen who frequented women of… ill repute. It was quickly reprinted as a handy pamphlet for the amusement of Paris.
Now that’s a good idea…
It was a disaster but Jean Pierre Blanchard was made of stern stuff. When the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated the first hot air balloon in 1783, he saw a money making bandwagon ready to be jumped on and modestly announced his own ascent claiming to be the ‘sovereign of the air’.
Although Jean Pierre has been described ‘if he ever had a friend he would stab him in the back for a newspaper headline’, his self-belief evidently inspired others and investors helped him build a 26ft silk covered balloon by 21 February 1784. He claimed an elaborate system of wings, instruments and a rudder would enable the first steered flight. This time a small demonstration at patron abbé de Viennay’s residence was a success.
A larger demonstration was booked at the Champ de Mars, Paris. On 2 March 1784 the police closed all the roads to carriages and the launch site was enclosed (so they could charge for tickets) but viewable enough from afar to impress the non-paying crowds.
An attack and danger in the air
The balloon was inflated and ready to ascend when at the last minute a student, Dupont, jumped into the gondola and demanded to be taken on the voyage. When he was refused Dupont set about with his sword. The parasols, wings, instruments and some strings were damaged and Jean Pierre’s hand cut.
The student was dragged off, but Jean Pierre, concerned the public would never forgive another failure was determined to continue. Without his flying partner and nothing left but a rudder and broken wings for propulsion, Jean Pierre Blanchard and his balloon left the ground.
Word of damage caused by the student spread like wildfire as Jean Pierre flew high above Paris for nearly two hours. Expecting the worst, the public were gripped. By the time he landed near the Sevres porcelain factory, Jean Pierre Blanchard was a star.
Although the public was impressed, it was clear when the balloon flew in the opposite direction of his planned route, that Jean Pierre he had not achieved anything near the promised steered flight, and the Parisian elite were rather snooty about his achievement.
He gave another demonstration in Rouen, but looking for rather more appreciation and new investors, Jean Pierre took himself and his contraption off to England.
To England and his greatest challenge
In England his promoted himself widely and loudly as the world’s greatest aeronaut, and listed achievements including a fair number that were completely made-up. He was soon enjoying enthusiastic support and wowing generous benefactors with balloon flights.
Then an American doctor with an interest in meteorology, John Jeffries, offered to pay Blanchard to accompany him on a flight across the Channel between England and France. Jean Pierre instantly sawe how this challenge would give him fame and probably a fortune. He agreed to the flight but was less willing to share the glory with Dr Jeffries. Dr Jeffries insisted on accompanying, signing a contract stating he agreed to jump overboard if it was necessary for the success of the flight.
Preparations were made at Dover in the castle grounds. By now Jean Pierre was determined to make this historic voyage alone. He barricaded himself into the castle and refused Dr Jeffries entry.
Livid, Dr Jeffries hired a gang of sailors to force their way in. Once inside a truce was negotiated and Jean Pierre appeared to relent.
On the day of the voyage, the two intrepid explorers stood in the gondola, the balloon above their heads. It would not rise. Unwilling to fly without his instruments Jean Pierre Blanchard demanded that Dr Jeffries leave the machine. Suspicious, Dr Jeffries refused and demanded to see under Jean Pierre’s bulky coat. There he discovered the famous inventor had strapped to himself numerous lead weights… the flight was postponed.
On 7 January 1785, they tried again.
Dover Museum in England has shared an engraving of the voyage entitled “Dover Castle, with the setting off of the balloon to Calais in January 1785”, published 1st August 1789. It was engraved by William Birch, from a painting by Thomas Rowlandson. Alongside the engraving is this commentary:
“This wonderful event, which cannot be too much contemplated, was performed by Mr. Blanchard and Dr. Jefferys, who, in defiance of the attractive powers of the earth they left, and without consulting the watery element, sailed, sporting in a new sphere, through the air to a foreign land, placing their pavillion in the clouds, and descending like aerial visions to the earth again to visit their neighbouring inhabitants..”
Would they make it all the way to France? The 1888 book ‘Wonderful balloon ascents: or, the conquest of the skies; a history of balloons and balloon voyages’ by Marion Fulgence gives the full, dramatic story…
Conquest of the skies
On the 7th of January the sky was calm, in consequence of a strong frost during the preceding night, the wind, which was very light, being from the north-north-west. The arrangements were made above the cliffs of Dover. When the balloon rose, there were only three sacks of sand of 10 lbs. each in it. They had not been long above ground when the barometer sank from 297 to 273.
Dr. Jeffries, in a letter addressed to the president of the Royal Society, describes with enthusiasm the spectacle spread out before him: the broad country lying behind Dover, sown with numerous towns and villages, formed a charming view; while the rocks on the other side, against which the waves dashed, offered a prospect that was rather trying.
Descent towards the sea
They had already passed one-third of the distance across the Channel when the balloon descended for the second time, and they threw over the last of their ballast; and that not sufficing, they threw over some books, and found them- selves rising again. After having got more than half way, they found to their dismay, from the rising of the barometer, that they were again descending, and the remainder of their books were thrown over.
At twenty-five minutes past two o’clock they had passed three-quarters of their journey, and they perceived ahead the inviting coasts of France. But, in consequence either of the loss or the condensation of the inflammable gas, they found themselves once more descending. They then threw over their provisions, the wings of the car, and other objects.
“We were obliged” says Jeffries “to throw out the only bottle we had, which fell on the water with a loud sound, and sent up spray like smoke.”
They were now near the water themselves, and certain death seemed to stare them in the face. It is said that at this critical moment Jeffries offered to throw himself into the sea, in order to save the life of his companion.
“We are lost, both of us” said he “and if you believe that it will save you to be lightened of my weight, I am willing to sacrifice my life.”
One desperate resource only remained — they could detach the car and hang on themselves to the ropes of the balloon. They were preparing to carry out this idea, when they imagined they felt themselves beginning to ascend again. It was indeed so. The balloon mounted once more; they were only four miles from the coast of France, and their progress through the air was rapid.
All fear was now banished. Their exciting situation, and the idea that they were the first who had ever traversed the Channel in such a manner, rendered them careless about the want of certain articles of dress which they had discarded. At three o’clock they passed over the shore half-way between Cape Blanc and Calais. Then the balloon, rising rapidly, described a great arc, and they found themselves at a greater elevation than at any part of their course. The wind increased in strength, and changed a little in its direction.
Having descended to the tops of the trees of the forest of Guines, Dr. Jeffries seized a branch, and by this means arrested their advance. The valve was then opened, the gas rushed out, and the aeronauts safely reached the ground after the successful accomplishment of this daring and memorable enterprise.
A cordial reception
A number of horsemen, who had watched the recent course of the balloon, now rode up, and gave the adventurers the most cordial reception. On the following day a splendid fete was celebrated in their honour at Calais. Blanchard was presented with the freedom of the city in a box of gold, and the municipal body purchased the balloon, with the intention of placing it in one of the churches as a memorial of this experiment, it being also resolved to erect a marble monument on the spot where the famous aeronauts landed.
Some days afterwards Blanchard was summoned before the king, who conferred upon him an annual pension of 1,200 livres. The queen, who was at play at the gambling table, placed a sum for him upon a card, and presented him with the purse which she won.
It was everything Jean Pierre Blanchard, the poor son from Petit Andelys had ever wanted.
Inventions, parachutes and a bumpy landing
The famous inventor toured Europe demonstrating his balloons, becoming the first to fly a balloon in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. When Sebastien Lenormand invented the modern parachute, Jean Pierre practised his own design with a dog as a passenger. He then became the first to jump from a balloon with a parachute in 1793 when his balloon ruptured and he was forced to use his parachute to escape.
Jean Pierre was the first to fly a balloon in America, launching from the prison yard of Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia on 9 January 1793. He was back in Europe when a crash in 1808 left him badly injured.
Jean Pierre François Blanchard, a remarkable, brilliant, difficult man from Normandy died on 7 March 1809, probably from those injuries. His place in history, secure.
A big thank you Mr Williams and the Dover Museum for the engraving and information about Jean Pierre Blanchard’s flight across the Channel.
Wonderful balloon ascents, or, the conquest of the skies; a history of balloons and balloon voyages -by Marion, Fulgence published in 1888
Flying’s extraordinary but true stories, by John Harding
Baling out, amazing stories of military flying, by Robert Jackson
The imagined empire; balloon enlightenments in revolutionary Europe, by Mi Gyung Kim