dirigible - BlanchardIn the 18th Century, Jean Pierre Blanchard was a household name. In the Blanchard household, anyway. Born in France in 1750, he was the first to fly in the Americas, more than a century before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, making today


On January 9, 1793, outside the walls of the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia, the capital of the brand new country The United States of America, aviation pioneer and self-confessed balloonatic Blanchard became the first person to fly in the New World, just as he had been the first man to make hot-air balloon ascensions in Germany, Poland, The Netherlands and Austria.

Blanchard also teamed with American Dr. John Jeffries to become the first international air travelers when they flew from England to France across the English Channel, and Philadelphia promoters promised the show of a lifetime.

“Ringside” seats were sold to amazed Philadelphians and locals officials for $5 a pop, soon dropping to $2 to boost a sluggish box office. Jean Pierre Blanchard was an international celebrity at the time, a talented engineer and inventor, one of the most celebrated Aeronauts in Europe and designer of many flying balloons, also called “dirigibles.”

Which still doesn’t ring a bell with anyone, does it? Even being described as “handsome and flamboyant” and being dressed for his ascension in “bright-blue knee breeches, matching waistcoat and a hat with white feathers” didn’t help his case.

Once airplanes were invented and daredevil pilots became all the rage, balloonists were yesterday’s papers, quaint eccentrics with a genteel hobby, floating silently away into the mists of history, even though few could match M. Blanchard’s sartorial splendor.

•Suggested Activities: Watching “Around The World in 80 Days,” waving to the Goodyear Blimp.

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