Crossing the Channel in a Balloon

Posted on Wed, January 18, 2017

Ballooning had wide-spread popularity in France during the 18th century, but English intellectuals were initially skeptical about the balloon’s utility. At the request of King George III, French experimenter François Pierre Ami Argand flew a small hydrogen balloon from Windsor Castle in November 1783, the first such flight in England.

The arrival of pioneering French exhibition balloonist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809), to England in 1784 sparked fresh excitement over ballooning. John Jeffries, M.D., an American loyalist living in England, paid Blanchard to carry him aloft in the fall of 1784. Equipped with specially designed flying clothing and scientific instruments, the good doctor was determined to pioneer science in the sky. With one flight under his belt, Jeffries then financed Blanchard’s attempt to fly the English Channel, in exchange for a seat in the basket.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Boston-born Jeffries made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, flying from Dover, England to Calais, France. Jeffries was the first American to make a free flight.

Other lengthy flights were less successful. On June 15, 1785, five months after Blanchard and Jeffries had flown into history with their first aerial crossing of the English Channel, Pilatre de Rozier, one of the first two men to fly, and Jules Romaine attempted the first crossing from France to England. The pair were flying a mixed hot air and hydrogen balloon, a type known to this day as a Rozier. A valve rope whipping over the upper part of the balloon holding the hydrogen-generated static electricity which ignited the balloon. The two men became the first balloonists to die in a crash.

  • Colored etching of balloon launch with small crowd watching.

    Colored etching of Professor Argand launching of a hydrogen balloon in the presence of King George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Royal Family in Windsor Park. On this occasion the King made a royal speech—short, true, and to the point. He said, "See, it goes." English, 1784

  • Black and white portrait.

    Portrait of Jean-Pierre Blanchard.

  • Colored portrait.

    Offset lithographic print of a portrait of Dr. John Jeffries. Jeffries is shown in the basket of a balloon, holding a scientific instrument.

  • Balloon pictured over water.

    Balloon aloft over the Cliffs of Dover, England. Aquatint

  • Brass drawer pull with image of balloon.

    Judging by the image, this brass drawer pull was designed to commemorate Blanchard and Jeffries flight across the English Channel. Brass drawer pull, Possibly English, 1785

  • Engraving of a balloon over cliffs with water in the background.

    An engraving based on a drawing by Thomas Rowlandson showing Blanchard and Jeffries leaving the English coast. Engraving, English, 18th century

  • Snuff box with painting of a balloon over a lake.

    This snuff box may have been intended to show the arrival of Blanchard and Jeffries over Calais. Snuff Box, Possibly English, 18th century

  • Patch box with ballooning scene on lid.

    The scene on this patch box likely depicts the fatal attempt to fly the English Channel by Rozier and Romaine.