Jean-Pierre Blanchard (July 4, 1753 – March 7, 1809), aka Jean Pierre François Blanchard, was a French inventor, most remembered as a pioneer in aviation and ballooning.
He began inventing a variety of interesting devices as a young boy, including a rat trap with a pistol, a velocipede, and later a hydraulic pump system that raised water 400 feet (122 meters) from the Seine River to the Château Gaillard.
He also attempted to develop a manually powered airplane and helicopter but was unsuccessful.
During the 1770s, Blanchard worked on designing heavier-than-air flying machines, including one based on a theory of rowing in the air currents with oars and a tiller.
One of the most skillful of the pioneer balloonists, Jean Pierre Blanchard was a dislikable character who, if he had ever had a friend, would have stabbed him in the back for a newspaper headline.
Flying for fame and money, the egotistical Blanchard was the first great aerial showman, stunt man, and occasional con man.
The son of French peasants, Blanchard was born in the village of Les Andelys in Normandy in 1753. After receiving a meager education and becoming disgusted with his family’s poverty, the ambitious young Blanchard ran away from home. Fleeing to Paris, he became a mechanic and tinker and, at the age of 16, invented the velocipede, an early form of the bicycle.
Next, he became enthralled with flight and studied birds to learn the secrets of aviation. The result of his investigations was his vaisseau volant (“flying vessel”). This invention had four birdlike wings which were flapped by manipulating two foot pedals and two hand levers. Needless to say, the contraption never left the ground, even though Blanchard insisted that he had flown it when there were no witnesses present.
Realizing his flightless flying machine would never bring him riches, Blanchard turned his attention to the newly invented gas balloons. He constructed his own balloon and attached oar-powered wings to the carriage, claiming that they enabled him to steer. The wings never succeeded in propelling his balloon and only added extra weight.
In March, 1784, Blanchard made his first balloon ascent from the Champ de Mars park in Paris. Blanchard planned to ascend with a monk named Pesch, but a deranged young man named Dupont de Chambon demanded that he go along. When Blanchard refused, De Chambon leaped into the carriage, drew his sword, stabbed Blanchard in the hand, and slashed at the rigging and wings until the police managed to drag him away. After this disturbance, Blanchard ascended alone. He frantically rowed the wings, but to no avail; a wind carried the balloon in the opposite direction of his intended journey.
Since France was the ballooning capital of the world, Blanchard found the competition for fame too stiff there and moved to England in late 1784. In England, Blanchard launched a publicity campaign promoting himself as the world’s greatest aeronaut and advertising his many achievements. Most of his claims were false, yet he convinced a group of wealthy personages to sponsor him. These patrons financed a number of flights that won Blanchard the renown which he so ravenously desired.
Together with one of his benefactors, Dr. John Jeffries, an American living in England, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the English Channel. Though Blanchard needed Jeffries to pay for the expedition, he certainly did not want Jeffries to accompany him and share the glory of being the first to cross the Channel. However, Jeffries insisted he be taken along and even signed a contract stating that, if necessary for the success of the flight, he would dive overboard. At Dover Castle on the English coast, Blanchard made his preparations, but he refused to allow Jeffries into his barricaded camp. Jeffries retaliated by hiring a squad of sailors to storm Blanchard’s fortress. Eventually a truce was negotiated, and Blanchard reluctantly agreed to let Jeffries accompany him.
© 1975 – 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace
Reproduced with permission from “The People’s Almanac”