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This Day in History: The first American to fly

On this day in 1784, the first American “aviator” takes to the skies. Would you believe that this individual was none other than a 13-year-old-boy? The young teenager made history when he climbed into a hot air balloon and floated into the sky—the first American ever to do so.

But how did a 13-year-old boy come to be in that position?

The Montgolfier balloon ascending in Paris (November 21, 1783)

It all started because Americans were then fascinated by balloons. Late in 1783, the French pioneers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier had demonstrated that hot air balloons could carry humans into the sky. News of the achievement soon reached America, of course.

At least one Maryland man knew exactly what he had to do.

Peter Carnes was determined to make his own balloon—and to turn his balloon into a money-making operation. He was a lawyer, not a scientist, but the entrepreneurial American figured out how to build his own balloon, from scratch.

Carnes was ready with his own balloon a mere seven months after the Montgolfier balloon had made its first manned, untethered flight. The entrepreneur advertised his intent to exhibit the balloon and to sell tickets to anyone who wished to watch.

The event was to be held at an enclosed park in Baltimore. Only paying customers would be allowed in for the show: Carnes hired an armed guard to keep all others away.

Tickets to Carnes’s show sold like hot cakes. The citizens of Baltimore it was said, went “Balloon Mad.” Stores all over the city shut down as a huge crowd gathered to watch Carnes’s exhibition on June 24, 1784.

“Every store but our own and a few others were shut,” grumbled one store keeper at the time.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but then Carnes ran into one small problem: He was too heavy for the balloon he’d built! He cranked the balloon up and down on its tether a few times, hoping to satisfy the crowd. The people “appeared highly delighted with the awful grandeur of so novel a scene, as a large globe making repeated voyages into the airy regions,” The Maryland Journal reported the next day. Yet the real victory occurred when a 13-year-old-boy by the name of Edward Warren volunteered to climb in and give the balloon a try.

“He bravely embarked as a volunteer on the last trip into the air,” The Maryland Journal described, “and behaved with the steady fortitude of an old voyager.” The crowd cheered and waved at the boy, who “politely acknowledged” the applause “by a significant wave of his hat.”

The crowd was so impressed with the boy’s courage that they took up a collection and presented the money to him when he was once again on the ground.

There is a postscript to the story, of course. Carnes still wanted to fly in his own balloon—or perhaps he just wanted to make more money? Either way, he arranged for a second flight in Philadelphia just one month after the first one.

The second flight was scheduled to launch from a prison yard. Carnes didn’t want to pay for a new enclosure to keep non-paying bystanders out, so the big prison wall was just what he needed. He also adjusted the balloon to carry his heftier weight.

None of it would be enough. Just as he launched, a gust of wind pushed the balloon into the prison wall. The tether snapped and Carnes barely made it out of his balloon before it soared into the sky and burst into flames.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Carnes’s aviation career was done after that. Yet he’d done enough to ensure that he—and a relatively unknown 13-year-old boy—would forever keep their place in aviation history as the first Americans to take to the skies.

“Peter Carnes and Edward Warren,” a National Park Service brochure concludes, “launched America on its love affair with flight.”

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