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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Historical Review
Vol. 25 No. 1 (Oct. 1919), pp68-72

The text is in the public domain.

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 p68  Notes on the Beginnings of Aeronautics
in America

In view of the important part played in the Great War by aircraft of various sorts, it is interesting to know that, more than a century and a quarter ago, three of the founders of the American Republic, signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Francis Hopkinson, were intensely interested in this subject, and definitely predicted the part that navigation of the air was to play in subsequent history.

The history of modern aeronautics begins on June 5, 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne, gave a public demonstration of their discoveries by sending up at Annonay, France, a large hot-air balloon. That this demonstration, which attracted so much attention in France, aroused almost an equal amount of interest in America is proved by the fact that during the next winter a correspondent in America of the Journal de Paris contributed to that paper a fictitious account of a balloon ascension which purported to have taken place in Philadelphia in the latter part of 1783.

According to this story, which was published May 13, 1784, "Ritnose" and "Opquisne", members of the "Philosophical Academy",​1 sent up, on December 28 of the preceding year, forty-seven small balloons, attached to a cage, in which they placed, first animals, and later "Gimes Ouilcoxe" (James Wilcox), a local carpenter. When the latter saw that he was approaching the "Scoulquille" River, he became alarmed and punctured some of his balloons and so brought himself down.

This story is a pure myth. There is no mention of the event in the records of the American Philosophical Society, in William Barton's Life of David Rittenhouse, in the correspondence of Francis Hopkinson,​2 or in Jacob Hiltzheimer's Diary — which does record the first real ascension. Nevertheless, it was generally accepted as true; it was quoted in Hatton Turnor's elaborate history of aeronautics, Astra Castra, and is repeated in the eleventh edition of the  p69 Encyclopaedia Britannica,​a although the hoax was thoroughly exposed in the thirty-fifth volume of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.3

Although this particular story is undoubtedly apocryphal, Francis Hopkinson and, a number of his friends, including Jefferson and Franklin, followed the early experiments in aeronautics with close attention. The first indication of this is found in the following extract from a letter written by Jefferson, at Annapolis, to Hopkinson, at Philadelphia, on February 18, 1784:

What think you of these ballons [sic]? They really begin to assume a serious face. The Cheval'r Luzerne​4 communicated to me a letter received from his brother, who mentions one which he had seen himself. The persons who ascended in it regulated its height at about 3000 feet and passed with the wind about 6 miles in 20 minutes when they chose to let themselves down, tho' they could have traveled triple the distance. This discovery seems to threaten the prostration of fortified works unless they can be closed above, the destruction of fleets, and what not. The French may now run over their laces, wines etc. to England duty free. The whole system of British statutes made on the supposition of goods being brought into some port must be revised; inland countries may now become maritime states unless you chuse rather to call them aerial, as their commerce is in future to be carried on through that element — but jesting apart, I think this discovery may lead to things useful — for instance there is no longer a difficulty how Congress may move backwards and forwards and your bungling scheme of moving houses and moving towns is quite superseded;​5 we shall soar sublime above the clouds.​6

Hopkinson's reply to this letter opens with a sentence which clearly disproves the story published in the Journal de Paris.

We have not taken the affair of the Balloons in hand. A high flying politician is, I think, not unlike a Balloon — he is full of inflammability, he is driven along by every current of wind and those who will suffer themselves to be carried up by them run a great Risk that the Bubble may burst and let them fall from the Height to which the principle of Levity has raised them.​7

 p70  Again, on March 31, he says,

A gentleman in Town is making an air Balloon of 6 feet Diameter; it is now almost completed — what the Success will be Time must show. . . .

Congress imagined that when they removed to Annapolis to pout we should all be in deep Distress-and for every Pout return a Sigh — but the Event is far otherwise. The name of Congress is almost forgotten and for every Person that will mention that respectable Body, a hundred will talk of an air balloon. I have a singular Regard for Congress, and will therefore ask an unfashionable Question, when may we hope to see Congress this way? and what are they doing? But I grow saucy and have not Time, now, even for that.​8

On May 12 Hopkinson sent his friend a still more important chapter in the history of aeronautics, since his letter gives the actual date of the first balloon ascension in Philadelphia:

We have been amusing ourselves with raising Air Balloons made of Paper. The first that mounted our Atmosphere was made by Dr. Foulk and sent up from the Garden of the Minister of Holland the Day before yesterday. Yesterday, however, the same Balloon was raised from Mr. Morris's Garden, and last Evening another was exhibited at the Minister of France's, to the great amusement of the Spectators. They were twice or perhaps three times the Height of the Houses; and then gently descended without Damage. They were open at Bottom and of course the Gas soon wasted. I am contriving a better Method of filling them.​9

Nine days later, May 21, Jefferson, now in Philadelphia, writes thence to Monroe, "I have had the pleasure of seeing 3 balons here. The largest was of 8 f. diameter and ascended about 300 feet."10

A letter written by Hopkinson to Franklin on May 24, 1784, continues the history of balloon experiments in Philadelphia and reveals the very interesting fact that the active mind of Hopkinson had already foreseen the invention of the dirigible:

We have been diverting ourselves with raising Paper Balloons by means of burnt Straw, to the great astonishment of the Populace. This Discovery, like Electricity, Magnetism, and many Other important Phaenomena, serveº for amusement at first — its uses and applications will hereafter unfold themselves. There may be many mechanical means of giving the Balloon a progressive motion other than what the current of wind would give it — perhaps this is as simple as any — let the Balloon be constructed of an oblong Form something like the body of a Fish, or a Bird, or a Wherry, and let there be a large and light wheel on the Stern, vertically mounted. This wheel should consist of several Vanes or Fans of Canvas, whose plains should be considerably inclined with respect to the Plain of its motion, exactly like the wheel of a Smoake-Jack. If the  p71 navigator turns this wheel swiftly round, by means of a winch, there is no Doubt but it would (in a Calm at least) give the Machine a Progressive motion, upon the same Principle that a Boat is scull'd thro' the water.​11

After Jefferson's appointment as minister to France in 1784, he sent Hopkinson two bits of news about the progress of aeronautics in Europe, and one to Monroe. Writing from Paris to the former on January 13, 1785, he says:

Mr. Blanchard of this country and Dr. Jeffries of Massachusetts arrived here the day before yesterday from Dover, having crossed the Channel on the 7th in a Balloon. They were two hours from land to land. It was filled with inflammable air. We are told here of a method of extracting this from soft coal cheaply and speedily, but it is not yet reduced to experience.​12

To Monroe, in a postscript to a letter dated Paris, June 17, 1785, in which allusion had been made to Pilâtre de Rozier's unfortunate attempt to cross the Channel in the opposite direction (June 15), Jefferson wrote:

Since writing the above we receive the following account. Mons. Pilatre de Rosiere, who has been waiting some months at Boulogne for a fair wind to cross the channel, at length took his ascent with a companion. The wind changed after a while and brought him back on the French coast. Being at a height of about 6ooo f. some accident happened to his baloon of inflammable air. It burst, they fell from that height and were crushed to atoms. There was a Montgolfier combined with the baloon of inflammable air. It is suspected the heat of the Montgolfier rarified too much the inflammable air of the other and occasioned it to burst. The Montgolfier came down in good order.​13

And finally on September 25 of the same year he wrote to Hopkinson:

Arts and arms are alike asleep for the moment. Ballooning indeed goes on. There are two artists in the neighborhood of Paris who seem to be advancing towards the desideratum in this business. They are able to rise and fall at will, without expending their gas, and to deflect forty-five degrees from the course of the wind.​14

 p72  Here then we have further evidence of the fact that the founders of the American nation were not merely provincial political leaders. Many of them, and particularly the three mentioned in this article, were men of great versatility and wide information, who found time, among the thronging cares of their active lives, to keep themselves well informed of the progress of art, letters, and science, not only here in America, but throughout Europe as well.

George E. Hastings.

The Author's Notes:

1 This evidently refers to David Rittenhouse and Francis Hopkinson, prominent members of the American Philosophical Society.

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2 The author of this article has written a life of Francis Hopkinson, which is deposited among the doctoral theses in the Harvard College Library.

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3 Joseph Jackson, "The First Balloon Hoax", Pa. Mag. Hist., XXXV.51‑58. [An examination of the original text in the Journal de Paris of May 13, 1784 (p585), of which Mr. Jackson seems to have had only a contemporary translation, has led the editor of this Review to think that, while the narrative is indeed fictitious, Mr. Jackson's conclusions as to the origin of the hoax are open to modification. Ed.]

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4 French minister. The ascent described by his brother was that of Pilâtre de Rozier, November 21, 1783.

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5 Jefferson was a member of Congress, which was at that time in session at Annapolis. He refers here to an essay of Hopkinson's entitled "A Summary of Some Late Proceedings", which ridicules the inability of Congress to decide on a permanent place of meeting.

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6 This letter is among the papers of Edward Hopkinson, Esq., of Philadelphia.

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7 Hopkinson to Jefferson, March 12, 1784. Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

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8 Hopkinson to Jefferson, March 31, 1784. Jefferson Papers.

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9 Same to same, May 12, 1784. Ibid.

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10 Writings, ed. Ford, III.496.

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11 Letter in the American Philosophical Society, Franklin Papers, XXXI.185. The Boston Magazine for July, 1784, p400, has the following item: "July 17. The American Aerostatic balloon will rise from New Workhouse yard with a person in it, between the hours of five and seven o'clock this evening".

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12 Letter in the collection of Edward Hopkinson, Esq. Dr. John Jeffries, A. B. Harvard 1763, M. D. Aberdeen 1769, was a Son of Liberty in the latter year but in 1776 went to Nova Scotia with Howe's troops as a surgeon, and thence to England. He returned to Boston in 1789 and practised medicine there until his death in 1819. Inflammable air is hydrogen.

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13 Writings, ed. Ford, IV.60.

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14 Works, ed. Washington, I.441.

Thayer's Note:

a Article "Aeronautics", Vol. I, p263.

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Page updated: 31 Jan 19