Balloonomania was sweeping through France, England and beyond in the early 1780s as people’s imaginations were captivated by an innovative, seemingly magical new form of travel: hot-air ballooning. A host of budding aviators, daring adventurers and record-setters took to the skies with their sights firmly set on continually reaching higher and thrusting further.
And it soon became clear that the first major step in long-distance balloon flight was going to be a successful crossing of the English Channel. At the narrowest point, just 21 miles of ocean separate Britain and France – it is possible to see one country from the other on a clear day – but this was a daunting prospect for anyone entrusting their lives to the little-tested, nascent technology. That is exactly what French aviation pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his American passenger John Jeffries did on 7 January 1785, when they became the first to cross the Channel safely... just about.
Humans take to the sky
Less than 14 months earlier, in November 1783, French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier’s paper-and-silk balloon completed the first untethered flight with people on board. Their invention reached an altitude of around 900 metres and travelled more than five miles above Paris. Just 10 days later, the French capital also witnessed the first manned hydrogen gas balloon flight.
Huge crowds gathered to observe these flights. This was something people had never seen before: humans flying in the sky like birds. The pilots became the celebrities of the day. The hype reached such heights that special souvenirs would be made to commemorate each flight, while balloons could be seen adorning everything, such as crockery and teapots. Fashion was balloon-inspired, with dresses boasting puffed sleeves known as au ballon, or coiffed hairstyles given names like à la Montgolfier, au demi-ballon or à la Blanchard.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard was already a well-known name before his Channel attempt, having completed flights in his native France and England. As well as a pilot, one of the first considered a professional aeronaut, he was also an inventor. While some of his additions, such as flapping wings and a windmill, may not have been that effective, Blanchard was confident his balloon could cross from Britain to France by air.
Flying over the Channel became a race among the pioneering balloonists. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier – who had been one of the two men on board the Montgolfiers’ balloon – wanted to take on the challenge. But he could not get everything ready before Blanchard.
John Jeffries was a wealthy American scientist, surgeon and balloon enthusiast. He had served for the British in the American Revolutionary War before moving to England, where he became acquainted with Blanchard. Together, they flew from London to Kent in late 1784. When that was successful, their attentions quickly turned to the greater prize, and Jeffries offered to fund the flight over the Channel – as long as he could be a passenger.
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Too much weight
At around 1pm on 7 January 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries took off from Dover and began the crossing. It had taken a week of planning and preparations, which included testing a kite to check the winds were in their favour, and adding to the hydrogen balloon a rudder, propeller and some silk oars in the hope that the men could row through the air.
But halfway through the voyage, the pair were in serious trouble. Despite all the ballasts being thrown over the side, the balloon kept descending, and at an increasingly alarming rate. In a panic, they began throwing out everything they could, from food and equipment to their clothes. Blanchard even discarded his trousers in a bid to make the balloon maintain its height.
It was enough to get them over land in France, which meant they could toss away their cork life jackets (as they were no longer over water), but the danger had not passed. Over dense woodland, the balloon started dropping again. There was one thing left they could do to make the balloon a little lighter – they could relieve themselves.
“It almost instantly occurred to me that we could supply it [weight] from within ourselves,” Blanchard later said. “From the recollection that we had drunk much at breakfast, and not having had any evacuation, and from the severe cold, little or no perspiration had taken place, that probably an extra quantity had been secreted by the kidneys, that we might now avail ourselves of by discharging.”
They were able to obtain, Blanchard went on: “I verily believe, between five and six pounds of urine; which circumstance, however trivial or ludicrous it may seem, I have reason to believe, was of real utility to us.”
With their bladders empty and the balloon still airborne, the pair made it to a landing site in Felmores Forest near Guînes, where they were able to come back to earth safely by grabbing hold of branches on their way down.
The flight had taken just two and a half hours, and ended with Blanchard and Jeffries met by excited onlookers, who luckily lent them some clothes.
There was one item they had kept their hands on when emptying the balloon’s basket – a letter, which instantly became the first-ever airmail. Dressed again and recovered from their adventure, Blanchard and Jeffries had a hero’s welcome in Paris as the first to cross the Channel by air. Blanchard, who received a reward and pension from a jubilant King Louis XVI, went on to tour Europe, and be the first to make a public flight in North America, which he did in front of the first US president, George Washington, in 1793.
After being beaten to the Channel crossing, de Rozier planned another attempt in the summer of 1785 going in the opposite direction, but he and his passenger were killed when their balloon crashed. It wouldn’t be until 1906 that another successful balloon crossing would be made, three years before Louis Blériot flew over in an aeroplane.
As for Blanchard, his love of ballooning would ultimately be his downfall. In 1808, he had a heart attack during a flight and fell more than 50 feet. He died a year later from his injuries.
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.