Tuesday, January 31, 2012

First Flight in America

On January 9th, 1793 the renowned French aeronaut, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, made the first air voyage in America. Monsieur Blanchard, accompanied by a small black dog, various scientific instruments, a few bottles of wine, and an official passport from President George Washington, began his ascent at 9 minutes after 10 o'clock in the AM. With a waving of a double-sided French & American flag to the amassed spectators, Blanchard lifted into the hitherto virginal American aerial domain from the courtyard of the Walnut Street Prison grounds at 6th & Walnut, Philadelphia.

Blanchard's Vaisseau Volant, his dirigible balloon.
Sketch by M. E. Wigfield, after a 1784 engraving
in the collection of William Gerhard.
His ascension was met with cheers from the crowds who gathered to witness the historic spectacle, shouting from the grounds below, from neighboring rooftops and out of open windows. After a kindly parting of a flock of pigeons to make way for the air balloon and having been now carried away from the city, Monsieur Blanchard remarked of the Delaware reflecting sunbeams "painted of a transparent white" and appearing to be of a breadth of about four inches. Once across the river, Blanchard became concerned with gathering clouds in the Southeast and began his descent. He was about to land amongst the woods very close to Woodbury, but his impact on the city had already become apparent prior to even Blanchard's launch as noted by the following entries in Woodbury resident and businessman Samuel Mickle's diary:

"1793. 1/8. Made some preparations to visit Philada. tomorrow morning. Having forgot ye report of a Balloon intended to be raised there tomorrow... ...also that all of Woodbury almost was going to see it, which appeared likely to obstruct my business... ...have postponed going there. 1793. 1/9. Great ado with looking for and at the Balloon which came, I suppose, within one mile from and eastward of us at Woodbury, and perhaps one-half mile in height. This is an instance of the body also as well as the mind being in ye air. Balloon is ye subject in almost every quarter."

A Map of the First Air Voyage in America, by M.E. Wigfield,
after a map by Erwin L. Schwatt, aviator. The certificate
of descent given to Blanchard gave the distance as
"about fifteen miles from Philadelphia" to Woodbury.
They probably estimated the distance by the carriage roads.
A homing pigeon would fly it in about nine miles.
But Blanchard's air voyage was not straight.

Blanchard landed in a clearing in the woods in the township of Deptford after being in the air for 46 minutes. With the help of the signed letter of passport from President Washington and the offering of wine, Blanchard, who spoke no English, was able to convince a few, at first, very shocked farmers to assist him on his return to Philadelphia. The names of the local residents being: Everard Bolton, Joseph Griffith, Joseph Cheesman, Samuel Taggart, Amos Castell, and Zara North.

"He is no dry-as-dust scientist; he is inspired. At the time of his forty-fifth aerial adventure, then ten years after his first, he is still excited and interested at every moment of his life in the air. He is a friendly man, an honest, modest fellow, an enthusiastic Frenchman, and eloquent writer. He is the gallant aeronaut waving his plumed hat, together with a double flag, as the ascension begins." (Frey & Blanchard, 1943)
A Portrait of Jean Pierre Blanchard, by M.E. Wigfield,
after the 1785 engraving by I. Sewel.
Fac simile of Blanchard's mononymized signature.

Frey, C., & Blanchard, J. (1943). The first air voyage in America; the times, the place, and the people of the blanchard balloon voyage of January 9, 1793, Philadelphia to Woodbury, together with a fac simile reprinting of the journal of my forty-fifth ascension and the first and the first in america by Jean Pierre Blanchard. Philadelphia, PA: Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company.