When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leaped from a capsule some 24 miles above earth on October 14, 2012, millions watched on television and the internet as he broke the sound barrier in a free fall that lasted ten minutes. But in the anticipation of Baumgartner’s jump (and his safe parachute landing), there was little room to marvel at the massive balloon that took him to the stratosphere.
More than 200 years ago in France, the vision of a human ascending the sky beneath a giant balloon produced what one magazine at the time described as “a spectacle the like of which was never shewn since the world began.” Early manned flights in the late 18th century led to “balloonomania” throughout Europe, as more than 100,000 spectators would gather in fields and city rooftops to witness the pioneers of human flight. And much of the talk turned to the French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard.
Known for being nervous on the ground but fearless in the air, Blanchard is believed to be the first female professional balloonist. She became a favorite of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII, who bestowed upon her official aeronaut appointments. Her solo flights at festivals and celebrations were spectacular but also perilous, and in the summer of 1819, she become the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.
She was born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant in Trois-Canons in 1778, not long before the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne began experimenting with balloons made from sackcloth and taffeta and lifted by heated air from fires in a box below. As the Montgolfiers’ balloons became larger and larger, the brothers began to consider manned flight. Louis XVI took an interest and proposed sending two criminals into the sky to test the contraption, but the brothers chose instead to place a sheep, a duck and a rooster on board for the first balloon flight to hold living creatures. In a 1783 demonstration before the King and Marie Antoinette and a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, the Montgolfier brothers saw their craft ascend 1,500 into the air. Less than ten minutes later, the three animals landed safely.
Just months later, when Etienne Montgolfier became the first human rise into the skies, on a tethered balloon, and not long after, Pilatre de Rozier and French marquis Francois Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes made the first human free flight before Louis XVI, U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin and more than 100,000 other spectators.
Balloonomania had begun, and the development of gas balloons, made possible by the discovery of hydrogen by British scientist Henry Cavendish in 1766, quickly supplanted hot-air balloons, since they could fly higher and further. More and more pioneers were drawn to new feats in ballooning, but not everyone was thrilled: Terrified peasants in the English countryside tore a descending balloon to pieces.
A child of this pioneering era, Sophie Armant married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a middle-aged inventor who had made his first balloon flight in Paris when she was just five years old. (The date of their marriage is unclear.) In January 1785, Blanchard and John Jeffries, an American doctor, became the first men to fly over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon, flying from England to France. (Pilatre de Rozier, trying to cross the channel from France to England later that year, became the first known aviation fatality after his balloon deflated at 1,500 feet.)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began to tour Europe. At demonstrations where he charged for admission, he showed off his silk balloons, dropped parachute-equipped dogs and launched fireworks from above. “All the World gives their shilling to see it,” one newspaper reported, citing crowds affected with “balloon madness” and “aeriel phrenzy.” Spectators were drawn to launches with unique balloons shaped like Pegasus and Nymp, and they thrilled to see men risk their lives in flights where fires often sent balloons plummeting back to earth.