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First Balloon Over NH

Hot air balloon
Jean-Pierre Blanchard, 1796

He was first to cross the English Channel in a hot air balloon. He was first to successfully parachute to the ground. But when he took his balloon aloft in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1796, a jealous local newspaper suggested his invention was only good for scaring cats.


On the cold afternoon of February 18, 1796, the winter calm that muffled the streets of Portsmouth was broken by the roll of drums and the piping of fifes. Instantly, a certain restlessness that had pervaded the seaport all morning was transformed into excitement. The martial music was a signal that this day would see the success or failure of French balloonists Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s "Aerostatic Experiment" – an exhibition of a sort that few New Hampshire citizens had ever witnessed, and that few would ever see again.

Jean PIerre BlanchardAs the town clock approached the hour of three, crowds began to gather at every vantage point. Already the balloon was being filled in the enclosed garden behind the Portsmouth Assembly House on Vaughan Street. Those who could afford a dollar each for tickets were admitted to the garden, where they could get a better view of the immense flying apparatus. The balloon, fabricated from some 150 yards of silk taffeta, had inflated to a height of 23 feet and a diameter of 17. It held 2573 cubic feet of a mysterious "aerial fluid" that caused it to tug at its tethers like a living thing.

Beneath the great globe hung a large umbrella-like device decorated to resemble a red, white, and blue French liberty cap. This was the famous parachute, a new invention whose amazing ability to retard the fall of an airborne object had been conclusively demonstrated by the very aeronaut who was now in Portsmouth. Below the parachute swung the "car" of the balloon, a wicker basket destined to carry "several living quadrupeds"—probably recruited from Portsmouth’s back alleys—high into the ether.

Jean Pierre Blanchard in NHSoon a hushed multitude of thousands listened anxiously for the strike of the town clock in the North Church steeple. Many stood within the assembly house courtyard, but most crowded the streets or gazed from the roof scuttles of private homes, expectantly searching the skyline in the direction of Vaughan Street. Suddenly they saw it; a majestic sphere, as tall as the average house, rose swiftly, irresistibly and in perfect silence toward the heavens. As the great form cleared the rooftops, the fluted surface of the balloon, the partially folded parachute and the small basketwork car were all silhouetted against a clear sky. Gasps of awe and admiration escaped the crowd and delighted huzzas filled the crisp air.

But the experiment had not yet ended. As the aerostatic machine climbed higher, a slow fuse was burning above the parachute. Suddenly, as a seemingly immense altitude, a charge exploded. The balloon shot upward, freed of its burden, and the parachute and car dropped toward the earth. The parachute blossomed into a huge tri-colored umbrella, drifting slowly in the almost imperceptible breeze. No longer counterbalanced, the balloon overturned, spilled it "aerial fluid" and fell in a majestic parabolic curve. Descending lazily, the parachute safely returned the car and its living cargo to the earth.

The New Hampshire Gazette, which had been favored with most of Blanchard’s advance advertising, estimated Blanchard’s audience at nearly 3,000 "who appeared very well satisfied at this sight, the first of the kind ever seen in this State."


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Wednesday, January 17, 2018 
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