Events and People

Up, Up and Away

Before there were space shuttles or airplanes, men experimented with other options of ascending into the heavens. Some means were less successful than others, contraptions attached to the body imitating the wings of birds being but one example. In the late 18th century, men experimented with another possible method of flight, the hot air balloon. At first the balloons were launched with no passengers, then with various animal riders, and finally carrying men.


The first recorded manned flight in a balloon left from Paris on November 21, 1783. This 22 minute flight was piloted by Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François-Laurent d’Arlandes. Many others pilots followed them into the skies, including Jean Pierre Blanchard who led the first balloon flight in America on January 9, 1793. His ascent is believed to be depicted in the woodcarving shown above.

Blanchard had flown many times before. This particular balloon flight was his 45th ascension. The French aeronaut planned a demonstration of his art in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Jail, located near the site of what is now Independence Square. After marketing the flight ahead of time, Blanchard intended to charge onlookers $5 to see his balloon take off. This price was later lowered to $2 as he discovered fewer people were buying tickets because they reasoned that they could just as easily see the balloon fly from outside the prison walls.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among a number of other notable figures were present for the take off. Washington sent along with Blanchard a note explaining the demonstration and imploring that people aid him whenever and wherever he eventually landed. (When the first unmanned hot air balloon experiment landed in Europe, it is said that farmers attacked the balloon with a pitchfork, not understanding what it was). In addition to the letter, Blanchard also brought along a bottle of wine to present to any unsuspecting landowners he might encounter at the end of his flight. Around 10 am on that day he took off from the grounds of the Walnut Street Jail. While in the air he performed many experiments. In addition to the expected meteorological experiments (recording the pressure, temperature, and other general weather conditions), he also filled several bottles with air to be studied later, took his pulse (which, on average, he found to be higher while he was in the air than when he was on the ground), and weighed a stone. He later landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey.

Blanchard had hoped to make enough money from selling tickets to view the flight to cover his expenses. When he fell rather short of this goal, Blanchard remained in Philadelphia experimenting and inventing other forms of transportation. He remained here until moving on in 1795 when yellow fever epidemics in the city caused people to be cautious about gathering together in groups to witness his experiments.