J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Dr. John Jeffries: physician, Loyalist, aeronaut, part 6

Part 5 of this series of postings left Jean Pierre Blanchard and Dr. John Jeffries dangling in their balloon a few yards above the English Channel. They had tossed out all their ballast, their pamphlets, parts of their balloon's car, and their overcoats. But still the balloon descended. The two men put on their cork life jackets and awaited impact.

Then the weather conditions suddenly changed. "Four or five miles from the shore" of France, the balloon started to rise. Soon, Jeffries judged, "We now ascended to a much greater height than at any former period of our Voyage, and exactly at three o’clock we passed over the high grounds between Cape Blanez and Blackness.” The balloon had completed the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, 7 January 1785.

Blanchard tossed out a packet of letters, and the men enjoyed watching it descend below them, "appearing, in its progress, to pass along over inclosures, houses, roads, &c. as if running after us.” In other words, the papers were traveling at the same speed as the balloon when Blanchard dropped them, and their momentum meant they kept traveling horizontally even as they fell vertically. Isn't Newtonian physics wonderful?

Jeffries and Blanchard then discovered a new problem: “from the height which we were now at, and from the loss of our cloaths, we were almost benumbed with cold.” It was January, after all. But that worry didn't last. The balloon began to descend again, and a large forest appeared below. Since it would be too dangerous to come down there, the aeronauts once again looked for things to throw out so the balloon stay up.

Jeffries and Blanchard “cast away one cork-jacket, and soon after it the other,” those "being the only things we had then left, excepting the Barometer." The doctor refused to discard his instrument—not only did it represent his desire to put aeronautics on a more scientific footing, but it was expensive. (He holds it in his portrait in ballooning gear.) Jeffries reported:

I felt the necessity of casting away something, to alter our course; happily (it almost instantly occurred to me, that probably we might be able to supply it from within ourselves), from the recollection that we had drank 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, which we might now avail ourselves of by discharging. I instantly proposed my idea to M. Blanchard, and the event fully justified my expectation; and taking down from the circle over our Car two of the bladders, for reservoirs, we were enabled to obtain, 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, in our then function; for by casting it away, as we were approaching some trees of the forest higher than the rest, it so altered our course, that, instead of being forced hard against, or into them (as at that instant appeared probable that we should be), we passed along near them in such a manner, as enabled me to catch hold of the topmost branches of one of them, and thereby arrest the farther progress of the Balloon

While Jeffries held the tree branches, Blanchard opened the balloon's valve, slowly letting out hydrogen. Pushing from one branch or tree to another, the men were able "to descend tranquilly to the surface of the ground" in half an hour. They had arrived in "the Forest of Guines, not far from Andres, and near the spot celebrated for the famous interview between Henry the Eighth, King of England, and Francis the First, King of France.” (This meeting was called the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The engraving above depicts Blanchard and Jeffries's balloon over the French countryside.)

In a short time locals arrived, including the Viscount Desandrouin. They provided the aeronauts with enough clothing to keep them warm and invited them to Calais. After recovering, the two men went on to Paris, where French society lavished most of its attention on Blanchard. He had an audience in Versailles with "the King, the Royal Family, the Minister, and other great Officers of State; and received, by Royal Order, a present of 12,000 livres, with a pension annexed of 1,200 livres a year; and as a perpetual memorial of this event, the place where we descended, to be called in future the Canton of Blanchard.”

Jeffries returned to England and published his account of the trip, which I've been quoting. He closed by noting he had been made "a founder and perpetual Member" of the new museum in Paris and an honorary citizen of Dover. Then he assured his readers that the “approbation…of his countrymen” will be “full compensation for those honours and rewards the French Court have partially bestowed on their Countryman." Hint, hint, hint.

Did Dr. Jeffries get the honor and rewards he was hoping for? See Part 7.

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