Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the noted 18th century “Airgonaut,” made his first successful balloon flight in Paris back in 1784, in a hydrogen gas balloon launched from the Champ de Mars. Blanchard’s flight nearly ended in disaster, when one spectator slashed at the balloon’s mooring ropes and oars with his sword after being refused a place on board. Observer Horace Walpole wrote of the flight that the Airgonauts were just like birds; they flew through the air, perched in the top of a tree, and some passengers climbed out of their nest to look around.
Nevertheless, these early balloon flights set off a public “balloonomania”, with clothing, hairstyles and various objects decorated with images of balloons or styled to resemble a balloon. In 1793, Blanchard scored another first — the first balloon flight in North America, ascending in Philadelphia and landing in New Jersey. Witnesses to the flight included President George Washington, and future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Some say Washington threw a silver dollar at the balloon.
Now famous, our Airgonaut married Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant in 1804. But his run of fame, fortune and good luck came to a sudden end four years later, when Blanchard had a heart attack while ballooning above the Hague. He fell from his balloon and died of his injuries on March 7, 1809. His widow Sophie inherited everything including the ballooning bug which would be her undoing as well: she continued to support herself with ballooning demonstrations until it also killed her. In 1819, she became the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident when, during an exhibition in the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, she launched fireworks that ignited the gas in her balloon. Her balloon crashed on the roof of a house, and she fell to her death. Don’t try ballooning at home.