Indiana University Bloomington

Conquest of the Skies: A History of Ballooning
Sic itur ad astra

Ballooning in America

Although citizens of the newly established United States received news from across the Atlantic rather slowly, they did have the benefit of Benjamin Franklin living there in Paris. He often sent news to his colleagues in the States, and he lost no time in telling them of the new balloon craze in France. It appears he also sent a copy of Faujas’s book to a former secretary of Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society in late December 1783. Early the next year, Thomas Jefferson displayed great interest in balloons in a letter to his cousin, enumerating the various possible uses balloons might eventually serve.

Despite this early enthusiasm by some of America’s scientific minds, no balloon voyage took place in the United States until ten years after the first manned flight in Paris. Some had made the attempt earlier. Peter Carnes built a montgolfière in 1784 and made several captive launches from Bladensburg and Baltimore in June of that year, including one which carried a boy aloft. His first attempt at a free-flight ascent himself, on 17 July that year in Philadelphia, was disastrous. Carnes was knocked from the basket when it hit a wall during its ascent, and after rising quickly for several minutes, the balloon burst into flames. Five years later, on 23 September 1789, Englishman Joseph Deeker attempted an ascent in New York, but it, too, ended in disappointment.

It was left to a Frenchman, the well-known aeronaut Pierre Blanchard, to make the first voyage in America in January 1793. Despite the apparent enthusiasm shown for Blanchard’s flight, however, it was not until the nineteenth century that aeronautics became popular and an aeronaut might make a career of ballooning.

Blanchard Title Page
Blanchard. Journal of my Forty-Fifth Ascension, being the First Performed in America, on the Ninth of January, 1793. Philadelphia: Printed by Charles Cist, 1793.

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In this work, Blanchard describes the entire enterprise, from the moment he first thought of coming to America to perform the experiment, his travels and preparations, and finally his ascent and descent. He began his voyage in Philadelphia, which was the nation’s capital at the time, so there were many dignitaries present including President George Washington. In fact, Washington wrote out a passport for Blanchard, so that no matter where his balloon came down, he would be protected. Blanchard did use the passport, for when he landed near Woodbury, NJ, he encountered countrymen who knew nothing of him or his language. The passport, along with a judicious offer of wine, inspired the men to help him. Blanchard writes, “How dear the name of Washington is to this people! With what eagerness they gave me all possible assistance, in consequence of his recommendation!”

Blanchard did not raise enough money to clear his expenses for the voyage, despite the enthusiasm shown by the whole city. Because of this and the high prices and difficulty of procuring the necessary materials for further voyages, he did not make a second ascent and eventually returned to France.

Crouch Front Cover
Tom D. Crouch. The Eagle Aloft : Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

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This massive work is considered the definitive history of ballooning in the United States. Crouch has provided accounts of nearly every balloon ascent that took place between 1783 and 1983. Due to the difficulties of securing the necessary materials and the necessary funding in the young republic, ballooning had a slow start in America, but by the 1820s, circumstances had at last allowed for aeronauts to make a living at their trade. Crouch traces the various ways balloons (and that related apparatus, parachutes) were used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from pure entertainment in circuses and fairs to military service in the Civil War and World War I. He concludes with an account of ballooning since the Second World War, when the goal was to get into the stratosphere.

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