Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Balloon Tragedy - Part 3 of Balloonamania

de Rozier
The first balloon crossing of the English Channel was met with cheers from enthusiastic bystanders. Unfortunately, Blanchard and Jeffries's success was followed by a horrible tragedy.

On June 15, 1785, Pilatre de Rozier attempted to fly across the Channel in the opposite direction, from Boulogne to Dover, possibly to prove that England could be invaded from the air.

“[de Rozier’s] huge aerostat was not a single balloon but two harnessed together, one on top of the other. The idea was to combine the stable lifting power of the hydrogen balloon (on the top) with the more dynamic and controllable power of the hot-air balloon below… In theory this dual design combined the best lifting characteristics of hydrogen and hot air… In practice, he had designed a lethal combination of highly inflammable gas and naked flame.”*

After the lift, witnesses watched as the balloon floated out to sea, but it soon drifted back to the French coast. Something had gone very wrong. “A small bright crown of yellow flame now began to appear at the top of the balloon where the hydrogen was venting. Then it folded up upon itself and began to drop to earth… Both aeronauts were killed, their bodies so horribly broken and ruptured that they were buried the same evening in the little local church at Wimereaux.”* It is possible that the spark was a result of static electricity.

Because of this tragedy and a balloon accident near Newcastle, the British public turned away from ballooning for a generation. “From 1790, virtually any balloon sighted in English skies would be assumed to be French and hostile. The aeronaut would find the ground even more dangerous than the skies.”

*The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, Vintage, 2009.


  1. In practice, he had designed a lethal combination of highly inflammable gas and naked flame.”*

    For some odd reason, maybe the wicked side of my nature, Mary, I burst out laughing at this phrase.

    What is wrong with me? Must keep a straight face. The two balloononauts died a horrible, mangled death.

    Just one thought Mary , when they buried them, did each head end up with the correct legs and arms attached? Well, things could have got mixed up!!!!!!!!

  2. Tony, I imagine they picked them up with a shovel. Pretty grizzly.

  3. I wonder if the English when spotting aeronaut flying one of these early versions of hot air ballons got their muskets out and shot at it. Especially thinking it was hostile & French.

    So will your next novella be about Darcy & Elizabeth in a hot air balloon. Hmmm ... there's a thought. If only we could get Carolyn up there and on her way over the Channel. You could always make it more attractive to her by making the balloon itself of an orange hue and putting a young man of darker quality in it that looked much like Darcy from behind. Yes, I can see it now. She could be the one to untie the balloon from the ground thinking she'd be off on a rendzvous with her lover. Then before she knows it the balloon is off and she realizes it's not Darcy she is with and she screaming oaths at Charles to get her down. And to make things even better they could have taken off from the continent and as they were heading toward England they suddenty were spotted by some farmers from Portsmouth, Brighton, or Dover, who of course thought they were French and hostile. Well, I do have my moments don't I? ;)

  4. Trez, What a wonderful idea for a vignette or a short story. You should write it. If you don't, I just might.

  5. You go right ahead Mary. I already have too many plot bunnies bouncing around here and not enough time.

  6. Ha! For the life of me I don't know why I spelled Caroline's name that way. Huh.

  7. Trez, It's funny. I read P&P twice before I noticed that "Bennet" had only one "t." I know you know how to spell Caroline. I call these things brain burps. :)

  8. Well Trez, you say between Portsmouth, Brighton and Dover. That's about a 100 hundred mile stretch.

    By balloon it would have to be Calais to Dover. There is not much choice there. It's the shortest distance. Portsmouth or Brighton you are thinking about 50 or 60 miles across the Channel at those points.

  9. I agree it would be the shortest distance. But back in regency time what if the wind were to pick up once they were air born and they ended up further west in a farmers field or just off the shore. I have never been to England so I have no knowledge of what the land is like in the south there, but I bet you would be a good resource given your name. :) There are people who swim the channel now a days where is their destination to and from?

  10. Hi Trez, You really must come here and explore. I think you would love it. Pub lunches are great by the way and you can find some tasty fish and chips around.Remember to use malt vinegar and sea salt on your chips though.

    In the 18th century and nowadays too, travel by balloon was and is not an exact science. Wind and terrain can have some dramatic effects.

    Around Dover there are the chalk cliffs running for many miles. Travelling towards Hastings and Brighton, parallel with the chalk South Downs, there are low lieing parts and some hilly coastal areas which abut the sea in cliffs.Beachy Head is one of the biggest cliffs in England. Shakespeare made it famous in King Lear. Lear's "fool" makes him think he has jumped off Beachy Head and survived. But I digress. Selsey Bill is flat marshland for instance.However I think with the distances across the channel up to 70 or 75 miles and even more as you go further west I think ballooning at those parts are always going to be extra precarious. I don't think anybody is going to cross the Channel in a balloon merely as a mode of transport. It's going to be as an adventure, a dare or a bet.Or, in the 18th century, as a French spy.

    All the best,

    PS Quote from Leer

    How fearful And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so

    low! The crows and choughs that wing

    the midway air Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half

    way down Hangs one that gathers samphire,

    dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than

    his head. The fishermen that walk upon the

    beach Appear like mice, and yond tall anchoring

    bark Diminish'd to her cock, her cock a

    buoy Almost too small for sight. The murmuring

    surge, That on th' unnumber'd idle pebble

    chafes, Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no

    more, Lest my brain turn, and the deficient

    sight Topple down headlong.

    -- King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi