December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
OF BALLOONS, THE FIRST AIR-MAIL LETTERS, AND THE EVER-ENTERPRISING FRANKLIN FAMILY
Seventy-seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin was at the top of his form in the fall of 1783. Minister to the court of France since 1776, this revered figure from the new young country had scored widely in France. Finally, in September, 1783, he had signed the definitive treaty of peace between America and England, bringing the Revolution to its formal end. The crowned heads of Europe saluted him; the diplomats admired him; the ladies adored him.
Right in the midst of these triumphs a new invention had burst upon the Parisian scene. Like a delighted schoolboy Franklin was among the first to extol the wondrous balloon and to investigate its possibilities. He was, after all, himself responsible for a number of equally fascinating discoveries. “He could make an experiment with less apparatus … than any other philosopher we ever saw,” Lord Brougham, the famous reformer, said of Franklin. “With an old key, a silk thread, some sealing wax and a sheet of paper he discovered the identity of lightning and electricity.” Small wonder that Franklin watched with unconcealed admiration these early balloon ascensions in Paris. Some, he noted, were propelled upward by nothing more than the heated air from the burning of “Faggots and Sheaves of Straw,” the Montgolfier brothers’ method. Others were lifted aloft by “the inflammable Air [hydrogen] that is produced by pouring Oil of Vitriol upon Filings of Iron,” the method of Professor J. A. C. Charles.
The next part of the story, of course, is famous: Doctor Franklin is among the excited crowd watching the first balloon ascension from the Champ de Mars, August 27, 1783, and someone poses the inevitable conservative question—what good is it? Watching the balloon rise magically into the sky, the man who has busied himself with every novelty—with meteorology, inoculation, bifocals, lightning rods, postal service, hydrodynamics, even a sensible new stove—turns and replies: “What good is a newborn baby?” The epigram ricochets throughout Paris and the world.
But Franklin did more than watch and quip. As soon as possible after first watching an ascension he was at his desk writing his detailed observations to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London, of which Franklin had been a member since 1756. “I thought it my Duty, Sir, to send an early Account of this extraordinary Fact, to the Society which does me the honour to reckon me among its Members. …” Duty it may have been, but as Franklin kept bombarding his English friend with the highlights of each additional French feat, Sir Joseph must have been hard pressed to continue to honor his first reply that “most agreeable are the hopes you give me of Continueng to Communicate this most interesting Subject.”
The day after the first manned flight, which took place on November ao and was launched not far from his house in Passy, Franklin followed his usual precise account to Banks with a gibe at English scientific reticence. “I am sorry this Experiment is totally neglected in England where mechanic Genius is so strong. … Your Philosophy seems to be too bashful. In this Country we are not so much afraid of being laught at. If we do a foolish thing, we are the first to laugh at it ourselves, and are almost as much pleased with a Bon Mot or a good Chanson , that ridicules well the Disappointment of a Project, as we might have been with its Success. It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied. When we have learnt to manage it, we may hope sometime or other to find Uses for it, as Men have done for Magnetism and Electricity of which the first Experiments were mere Matters of Amusement.”
Poor Banks! Although Franklin’s letters to him are now valued sources of information on the birth of ballooning, he must have been vastly relieved the following year when London was finally treated to an ascension—even though it was an Italian secretary to the Neapolitan ambassador who rose to—and on—the occasion.
While the fascinated French were caught up in an all-out balloon craze—“Come for tea and balloons,” read one invitation to Franklin—his busy mind was leaping ahead to the possibilities offered by the new invention. Having so recently been involved in the affairs of war, he envisioned “elevating an Engineer to take a View of an Enemy’s Army, Works, &c., conveying Intelligence into, or out of a besieged Town, giving Signals to distant Places, or the like.” He re.ported he had heard suggestions for using balloons for sight-seeing and procuring ice; and because of the acute pain he suffered from a bladder stone, he noted humorously that a balloon “being the easiest of all Voitures … would be extremely convenient to me, now that my Malady forbids the Use of the old ones over a Pavement.”
The small unmanned balloon, only twelve feet in diameter, that the French physicist J. A. C. Charles launched on August 27, 1783, was inflated by the gas from a thousand pounds of sulfuric acid poured on five hundred pounds of iron filings. This massively inefficient task took over three days. Franklin, who joined an estimated fifty thousand people to watch, reported to Banks that “a Note secur’d from the Weather had been affix’d to the Globe signifying the Time & Place of its Departure, and praying those who might happen to find it, to send an account of its State to certain Persons at Paris.” As it turned out, the balloon fell in the small village of Gonesse about twelve miles away. The country people, not having a shred of Franklin’s scientific curiosity or the Parisians’ enthusiasm, “were frightned, conceiv’d from its bounding a little, when it touched the Ground, that there was some living Animal in it, and attack’d it with Stones and Knives, so that it was much mangled. …” Indeed, they thrust their pitchforks into it and tied it to the tail of a horse, which dragged it off ignominiously. Franklin did not make clear who finally read the note or how word of its fate got back to Professor Charles but reported in his postscript only that “it is now brought to Town and will be repaired.” In the interim the more sophisticated multitude in Paris went their separate ways, “all well satisfied and delighted with the Success of the Experiment, and amusing one another with discourses of the various uses it may possibly be apply’d to, among which many were very extravagant.” Franklin went home to consider how it might pave the way to some “Discoveries in Natural Philosophy of which at present we have no Conception.”
When Franklin went to Paris in 1776, he took with him sevenyear-old Benjamin Bâche, son of his only daughter, Sarah, and sixteen-year-old William Temple Franklin, the illegitimate son of his own illegitimate son William. The latter had estranged himself from his loving but bitter father when, as royal governor of New Jersey, he had espoused the Loyalist cause. Old Franklin had seen this coming during the years prior to the Revolution when he, William, and Temple lived in England, and Franklin, “from a long and thorough consideration of the subject,” came to hold the opinion “that the parliament has no right to make any law whatever, binding on the colonies. … I know your sentiments differ from mine on these subjects,” he continued in this letter written to William in 1773. “You are a thorough government man. …” He was right. In America William was sent to jail for his position, condemned as “a virulent enemy of this country.” Exchanged in 1778, he ended up back in London like many other American Loyalists, including Dr. John Jeffries, who had served as a surgeon general in the British army. Temple remained with his grandfather after his father’s imprisonment and served as his unofficial clerk in Paris. Although Franklin doted on him, Temple was something of a fop, parading around Paris in fancy clothes and presenting Franklin with an illegitimate great-grandson (ah, tradition!), but the latest love child did not survive his first year. Temple remained on good terms with his handsome and worldly father, visiting him in London and maintaining a steady correspondence with him. It was therefore not surprising that when William Franklin learned of the proposed flight from Dover to Calais to be made by his friend Dr. Jeffries, he asked him to carry with him a letter to his son. “I dare say,” he wrote Temple on December 16, 1784, “you will like to be one of the first who gets a Letter across the British Channel by this kind of aerial Conveyance.” Old Ben, perhaps a bit confused when writing to his friend James Bowdoin in 1786, claimed that “my Acquaintance with Dr. Jeffries began by his bringing me a Letter in France, the first thro’ the Air from England.” Although the grandpère clearly was stealing the glory from the petit fils , it is the latter’s letter (right) that survives to this day as the world’s first air-mail message; it reposes in the archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Excited by the lighter-than-air feats of the fall of 1783, Franklin had envisaged the possibility of a balloon crossing the English Channel and noted that two balloonists had already “made a trip …thro’ the Air to a place farther distant than Dover is from Calais.” The first cross-channel flight, carrying food, drink, and thirty-four books besides the letter to Temple Franklin reproduced on page 29, took off on January 7, 1785, from Dover Castle, an event recorded on the spot in this sketch by the popular artist Thomas Rowlandson. The two intrepid airmen, Jean Pierre Blanchard and Jeffries, did not get off to an auspicious start. Although Jeffries had financed the entire operation, Blanchard wanted the glory all to himself and even went so far as to put lead in his pants in an effort to overweigh the craft and discourage Jeffries from going. When this did not work, they started off and are seen in the print at left making a calm approach to the French shore. This, however, was not the reality of their situation. They were constantly endangered by the balloon descending and were forced to throw out everything on board, including their clothes. Final disaster was averted by Dr. Jeffries’ ingenious idea of emptying their bladders, and they eventually alighted unharmed in the forest of Guinnes. The heroes were made much of in Paris, and Jeffries dined several times with the Franklins. As for the baby, aviation, it has found an even better method than Jeffries’ for staying in the air and has proved as “good” as the old Doctor suggested.