This Day in History: George Washington, patron of aviation pioneers?
On this day in 1793, the first successful balloon flight is made from American soil. Did you know that President George Washington was in the audience for the occasion?
Washington had been interested in hot air balloons for years. “I have only news paper Accts of the Air Balloons,” he wrote a friend in 1784, “to which I do not know what credence to give; as the tales related of them are marvelous, & lead us to expect that our friends at Paris, in a little time, will come flying thro’ the air, instead of ploughing the Ocean to get to America.”
Unsurprisingly, then, he was ready to help when French balloonist and aviation pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard came to America late in 1792. It was time Americans saw such feats for themselves.
Blanchard planned to depart January 9 from the Walnut Street Prison, as “the most suitable place, on account of its spaciousness.” He’d even sold tickets for the event—at $5 a person! Most people couldn’t afford such a splurge, so most of the crowd instead watched events unfold from rooftops and streets outside the prison walls.
Cannons began firing at dawn, counting down the moments until Blanchard’s anticipated departure. The balloon was inflated, and a band played. Washington soon arrived, too, handing Blanchard a piece of paper: It was a pass, which would help Blanchard explain his presence to anyone he might meet on the other side of his trip.
Blanchard didn’t speak a word of English, so the pass was pretty important!
Finally, Blanchard’s balloon rose into the air. “[T]he the majestic sight was truly awful and interesting,” a reporter wrote, “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 broke . . . .”
“[F]or a long time could I hear the cries of joy which rent the air,” Blanchard later wrote. A few men tried to keep up with him on horseback, but Blanchard’s balloon was moving too fast.
While Blanchard was in the air, he performed experiments for Americans such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, who wanted Blanchard to measure his pulse at various altitudes.
Finally, Blanchard brought his balloon down in a small New Jersey clearing. The farmers there were surely surprised to see any type of vehicle dropping out of the sky?! One man dropped his gun, astonished, and “lifted up his hands towards heaven.” Another could not be convinced to approach until Blanchard offered him a bottle of wine. The Frenchman later explained that the “exhilarating juice of the grape was always amongst mankind the happiest sign of friendship and conciliation.”
Spoken like a true Frenchman?
Finally, the farmers accepted Blanchard when they saw the pass from Washington. “How dear the name of Washington is to this people,” Blanchard observed, “with what eagerness they gave me all possible assistance, in consequence of his recommendation!”
Blanchard and his balloon were back in Philadelphia by the end of the day. Blanchard’s first act was to visit Washington and “inform him of the happy effects of the passport he had been pleased to grant me.”
George Washington: Father of the Country, President of the United States, Commander-in-Chief of the Army—and patron of aviation pioneers! Who knew?!
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
George Washington and Ballooning (Mount Vernon website)
George Washington, Pass for Jean-Pierre Blanchard (Jan. 9, 1793)
Extract of a letter from New-York, written last Tuesday morning (MD Gazette; Jan. 17, 1793) (p. 2)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Journal of my forty-fifth ascension, being the first performed in America, on the ninth of January, 1793 (1918 reprint HERE)
Letter from George Washington to Duportail (April 4, 1784)
Pat Fiaschetti, A Happy Landing for America’s First Hot-Air Balloon Flight (NJ Monthly; Jan 8, 2018)
Tom D. Crouch, The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America (1983)