A First in Philadelphia
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was neither
the first nor the last daring venture that
engaged Benjamin Rush and Caspar Wistar.
Ballooning had a ten-year history in 1793; the United States was only seventeen. The French balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard had come to spend a year in Philadelphia, to see America and to be seen. He was filled with "the desire of beholding you in the full enjoyment of the blessings of liberty, under the protection of your newly established government." Philadelphia was then the capital of the United States. It was the permanent home of Benjamin Franklin, well known to the French, not least for his scientific accomplishments. And it was the official home of the notables of the Revolution, including George Washington.
"This Way to the Stars"
From the frontispiece to Blanchard's Journal of my Forty-Fifth Ascension, Being the First Performed in America
Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser described the event in vivid detail. At 10 sharp the "bold Aeronaut" spoke briefly with the President, then "leap'd into his boat which was painted blue and spangled; the balloon was of a yellowish color'd-silk highly varnished, over which there was a strong net work." It rose to "an immense heighth," caught the wind, and "shaped its course" southeastward. "Several Gentlemen gallop'd down the point road, but soon lost sight of it, for it moved at a rate of 20 miles an hour."
Perhaps over-anxious to ensure that all was ready, Blanchard left his lodgings on North 8th Street sometime before four in the morning of January 9, 1793. Just a few minutes too early for the rise of the waning crescent moon, he walked beneath a "serene sky, spangled with ten thousand glittering stars." The temperature of the air was just below the freezing point.
To get to the site of the launch at the Walnut Street Prison, his best route would have been two blocks east on Market Street, then two blocks south to the prison. That would bring him close to notable places (the "President's House," the State House) and he would avoid until the last few yards the grim sight of Southeast Square (now Washington Square, then a potter's field just outside the prison walls).
Later in the morning the sky became overcast, but by the time assigned for the launch, the sun had broken clear. Ticket holders and distinguished guests including Washington had begun to arrive at the interior yard of the prison. A far greater crowd gathered on the surrounding streets. Cannons had been firing since dawn, counting down to lift-off. Sometime between eight and nine o'clock, inflation of the balloon began. A band serenaded the crowds.
Since Blanchard did not speak English, Washington considerately gave him a kind of passport, a letter that would introduce the aeronaut wherever he happened to land. Addressed to no particular person, it was to become the first airmail delivery in America.1
By ten o'clock the day had warmed considerably, and Blanchard climbed aboard. It was far from certain that the ascent would be carried off safely. The flammability of hydrogen was well known. A reporter noted a certain solemnity in the first moments: "When [the balloon] began to rise, the majestical sight was truly awful and interesting. . . . Indeed the attention of the multitude was so absorbed that it was a considerable time e'er silence was broke." Blanchard turned his eyes "toward the immense number of people, which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads," and waved a flag. The viewers in the belfry may have had the most advantageous positions of all. Five churches—not all with steeples—were clustered within three blocks of the launch site, and the wind carried the balloon through their midst and almost due south. "For a long time could I hear the cries of joy which rent the air," wrote Blanchard.
Aloft, in addition to recording time, barometric pressure and temperature, Blanchard fulfilled three requests. One experiment, requested by a Doctor Glentworth, found that a magnet barely lifted a 4-oz weight though it had managed 5.5 oz at ground level. Benjamin Rush asked him to measure pulse rate at the greatest altitude he reached. The mean of four measurements was 92 beats per minute, 8 beats per minute greater than what it had been at ground level. Also at highest altitude, he drained six fluid-filled bottles Caspar Wistar had provided. The air that replaced the fluid was hermetically sealed in the bottles (he did not describe how) for later examination. As with Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery, there were reasons to fear that the data would never be obtained, but at least, in this case, the wait would not be prolonged. Presumably the three requesters were present at the ascent, as well as other scientific and political leaders living in the capital city, an audience as distinguished as any that can be imagined in American history.
Blanchard, having completed his scientific work, and noticing a thick fog to the south and a mist obscuring the coast to the east, decided to descend. He was at that time above the Delaware in the vicinity of the present site of Philadelphia International Airport. Two potential landing spots were approached and rejected. The first was a forest, the second a clearing still obstructed by tree stumps. Forty-five minutes after takeoff Blanchard brought the balloon down in a small clearing in New Jersey near Woodbury. As he was checking the state of his instruments—the barometer did not survive the rough landing—a man appeared, looking for the object he had seen dropping from the skies. Only gradually was he induced to approach and accept Blanchard's offer of wine, apparently brought for just such a meeting. The second man to appear dropped his gun in astonishment and "lifted up his hands toward heaven." Two women and several men on horseback arrived. At length one read the President's letter of introduction aloud "in the midst of a profound silence...How dear the name of Washington is to this people! With what eagerness they gave me all possible assistance," exulted Blanchard.
Back in Philadelphia by 7 o'clock, the aeronaut went at once to present Washington the colors he had waved as he had ascended, on one side a French tricolor; on the other "the armoric bearings of the United States."
For all that, Washington did not record the event in his diaries. Still, it was altogether a joyous and triumphant occasion, which was to be overcast all too soon by an unrelated tragedy. By summer's end one in ten of the observers was dead, casualties of the yellow fever epidemic. Wistar himself was almost one of them.
It is not difficult to imagine Jefferson—who probably witnessed the flight—just a few years later contemplating another kind of adventure and recalling those days of excitement and tragedy in Philadelphia.3
1. The letter read: "George Washington, President of the United States of America, to all to whom these presents shall come. The bearer hereof, Mr. Blanchard a citizen of France, proposing to ascend in a balloon from the city of Philadelphia, at 10 o'clock, A. M. this day, to pass in such direction and to descend in such place as circumstances may render most convenient— These are therefore to recommend to all citizens of the United States, and others, that in his passage, descent, return or journeying elsewhere, they oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard; And, that on the contrary, they receive and aid him with that humanity and good will which may render honor to their country, and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.
"Given under my hand and seal at the city of Philadelphia, this ninth day of January, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three, and of the independence of America the seventeenth."
Blanchard had also carried the first air mail delivered anywhere when, in 1784, with an American passenger named John Jeffries, he crossed the Channel from England to France.
2. Blanchard does not reveal what he thought of these experiments. He already had made 44 flights in Europe, apparently without questions about the ethereal heights, probably because Europeans in the Alps lived out their lives at those elevations. Perhaps it was thought that separation from the earth was significantly different from being on earth at great elevation, or perhaps it was a touch of provincialism in the American scientists. In the latter case, it was reciprocal: earlier in the history of exploration, there had been doubts in Europe about the New World's climate and soil being suitable for human life.
3. Quotations are from J. P. Blanchard's Journal of my Forty-fifth Ascension, Being the First Performed in America, on the Ninth of January, 1793. Reprinted in The First Air Voyage in America, by Carroll Frey (Philadelphia: Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., 1943).