I always love reading what happened on this day in history, and today is particularly fun. On this day in 1785, French inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American doctor John Jeffries crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon, marking the first aerial crossing and setting an example of Franco-American cooperation that I can’t help but be proud of. Ballooning was all the rage at the time, according the Blanchard’s wikipedia entry:
The early balloon flights triggered a phase of public “balloonmania”, with all manner of objects decorated with images of balloons or styled au ballon, from ceramics to fans and hats. Clothing au ballon was produced with exaggerated puffed sleeves and rounded skirts, or with printed images of balloons. Hair was coiffed à la montgolfier, au globe volant, au demi-ballon, or à la Blanchard.
Monsieur Blanchard made a career out of ballooning, and ended up touring America and Europe, wowing George Washington and four future presidents on one day alone. He also teamed up with Sébastien Lenormand, the inventor of the parachute, endorsing it as a great way to escape safely from a hot air balloon (the parachute had been invented as a means to escape from burning buildings, but Blanchard had a one-track mind). Blanchard took his obsession slightly too far, and eventually had a heart attack whilst inside the balloon and fell out and died. His wife suffered a similar fate a few years later (which was documented by Norwich Duff, born down the street from me in Edinburgh), though not before she was proclaimed the “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration” by Louis XVIII.
For his part, John Jeffries studied medicine in Edinburgh, was a Loyalist who was involved in the Boston Massacre trial (he testified that in Ireland the soldiers would have fired even sooner) and was a surgeon for the British Navy during the occupation of Boston. Also, this fascinating article claims that he and Blanchard pretty much hated each other, and may have killed a small dog during their journey.
All of this reminded me of another balloon journey that took place much later – the ill-fated attempt by S.A. Andrée and his two assistants, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel.
Mr. Andrée was a Swedish engineer with a passion for ballooning who got caught up in all of the turn-of-the-century excitement surrounding polar exploration. He combined these two interests and formulated a plan for travelling across the North Pole in a balloon from Sweden to Canada. His plans were based on completely unproven and blatantly impossible theories (steering a balloon with ropes, for example), but his enthusiasm appealed to the Swedish power structures at the time, which were concerned that their supposedly inferior neighbors Norway were winning the polar exploration race (who eventually won is disputed, but the Swedes certainly didn’t end up doing that well at all). The Swedish Academy approved his plan and funded his project.
The expedition was doomed from the start. The balloon couldn’t hold air, the steering mechanism didn’t work, they didn’t bring enough food, and their clothing was totally unsuitable. After a disastrous first attempt, one of Andrée’s assistants quit, and was replaced by Knut Frænkel (who seems to have been younger and less critical). They finally took off in 1897. The steering ropes and seven hundred and forty kilograms of weight were jettisoned within a few minutes of takeoff. The flight lasted 10 hours, followed by 41 hours of bumping along the ice before they landed. The three of them wandered around the ice floes for three months (with Knut taking lots of lovely photographs) before dying, probably from contracting a disease by eating raw Polar Bear meat. Their bodies were found 33 years later and they were returned to Sweden as national heroes.
And 75 years later, my brother Cory and I read about this expedition and wrote a song about it! It’s called “The Ballad of Knut and Nils”, and you can listen to it right here:
The song features me on guitar, recorded in Pittsburgh, and my brother on a Bolivian Charango (which was subsequently destroyed by British Airways). It is on our album “Sediment”, which you can buy on our Bandcamp page.
I also can’t help thinking that this all somehow relates to Mujik, with the balloon thing and all. Hmmmm.
images from the Library of Congress and of course the Wikipedia entry on S.A. Andrée’s balloon expedition.