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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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Dr. John Jeffries: physician, Loyalist, aeronaut, part 5

After their first flight together, in November 1784, Boston-born Loyalist Dr. John Jeffries and French balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard set their sights on an aerial voyage more spectacular than any yet attempted: crossing the Channel from England to France.

Such a long voyage, largely over water, would be the most daring feat in the young science of aeronautics. With Britain and France at war until the beginning of 1783, showing that it was possible to cross silently from one country to the other carried military implications. And whoever survived such a flight would gain tremendous international glory—not a small consideration for men like Jeffries and Blanchard.

In Dec 1784, Jeffries returned to London to write an account of their first balloon trip, and no doubt to the plaudits of British society. He had agreed to pay Blanchard's expenses in assembling a new balloon and filling it with hydrogen gas in Dover. The two aeronauts traveled to that southern English town on the 17th. Almost immediately, cracks began to appear in the partnership. Jeffries suspected Blanchard of trying

to prejudice the minds of some of the principal Gentlemen of the County of Kent, and of the City of Dover, insinuating, that from the incapacity of the Balloon it was madness to attempt the experiment with two persons, unless the Balloon could carry an hundred pound weight of ballast. The pretended friends of M. Blanchard, his Countrymen, publicly circulated such reports of my having declined the enterprize...
At a weigh-in to determine how much the balloon would have to carry, Blanchard wore "a concealed heavy girdle" to increase his weight, trying to leave no room for the doctor.

The Governor of Dover Castle sat down with both men to clarify their (written) agreement. It became clear that Jeffries, who was paying the bills, was willing to travel without Blanchard if only one man could go. From then on, the little Frenchman stopped talking about the balloon being too small for two men.

The morning of 7 January 1785 "was remarkably fine, clear, and serene, but with intense frost"—the first day that seemed right for the launching. The team watched the clouds, smoke from Dover Castle, a kite, “a paper Montgolfier, and a small gaz balloon”—all of which indicated wind blowing across the Channel. After noon, the balloon was filled, dragged to the cliffs of Dover, and attached to the car and Blanchard's useless wings and oars. The two men climbed in, and the balloon took off at 1:00. There were crowds not only on land, but also salutes from ships in the sea below.

The balloon soon rose high enough for Blanchard and Jeffries to be able to see both England and France as the car twirled. However, it was also traveling slowly eastward—not the best direction. Gradually the wind shifted to carry the balloon toward France, and the two men turned their attention to attaching their flotation devices—inflated animal bladders—to the hoop between the car and balloon. But at 1:50, Jeffries realized, “having, I judge, been too inattentive to the state of the tubes...we were descending fast.” They were about a third of the way across the Channel.

The men tossed out a sack and a half of ballast, and the balloon rose again—for a while. Soon they had to toss out “the remaining sack and a half of ballast, sacks and all," followed by all the pamphlets Blanchard had brought to toss out over his native land. Jeffries recalled
We had not now any thing left to cast away as ballast in future, excepting the wings, apparatus, and ornaments of the Car, with our cloaths, and a few little articles; but as a counterpart to such a situation, we here had a most enchanting and alluring view of the French coast, from Blackness and Cape Blanez to Calais, and on to Gravelines, &c.
At 2:30—
the Balloon did not appear to be three-fourths filled with gaz. We immediately threw out all the little things we had with us, such as biscuits, apples, &c. and after that one of our oars or wings; but still descending, we cast away the other wing. . . . I now succeeded in attempting to reach without [i.e. outside] the Car, and unscrewing the moulinet, with all its apparatus; I likewise cast that into the sea.——Notwithstanding all which, the Balloon not rising, we cut away all the lining and ornaments, both within, and on the outside of the Car, and in like manner threw them into the sea; after which, we cast away the only bottle we had taken with us, which in its descent appeared to force out a considerably steam like smoke, with a hissing or rushing noise; and when it struck the water, we very sensibly (the instant before we heard the sound) felt the force of the shock on our Car; it appearing to have fallen directly perpendicular to us, although we had passed a considerable way during its descent.
Despite thinking of himself as a gentleman of science, Jeffries was apparently surprised by seeing Newton's laws of motion in action.

But still the balloon kept falling. It was only three-quarters across the Channel, and below the level of the French cliffs.
We were obliged, though very unwillingly, to throw away our anchors and cords; but still approaching the sea, we began to strip ourselves, and cast away our cloathing, M. Blanchard first throwing away his extra coat, with his surtout; after which I cast away my only coat...
The emphases are Jeffries's, making a point that Blanchard brought more heavy clothing than he did. Meanwhile, the water was getting closer.
...and then M. Blanchard [tossed away] his other coat and trowsers: We then put on and adjusted our cork-jackets [i.e., life jackets], and prepared for the event.
That event comes in Part 6.

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