Although preceded by other women in the air, Sophie Blanchard was the first female to fly a balloon solo. She got into ballooning because of her husband, pioneer balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. The story goes that Jean-Pierre was passing through the village of Trois-Cantons, near Rochelle, saw a pregnant woman working in the field, and told her that if her child proved to be a girl, he would marry the girl when she turned 16.
Jean-Pierre was already married when he made the promise to Sophie’s mother, and likely had already abandoned his first wife, Victoire Lebrun, and his four children. On 25 March 1778, Marie Madeleine Sophie Armand was born. Jean-Pierre kept his marriage promise, but exactly when Jean-Pierre and Sophie married is unclear. The earliest is 1794, but the most frequent date given coincides with Sophie’s 1804 ascent.
Sophie’s first ascent in a balloon occurred in Marseilles on 27 December 1804, which she described as an “incomparable sensation.” The reason that Jean-Pierre took her into the sky was that he had poor business skills and was facing bankruptcy. He decided that a female balloonist might be viewed as a novelty, which in turn would attract enough attention to solve his financial problems.
About six months later, on 24 June 1805, Sophie made her first solo flight in the south of France near Montpelier. Her solo flight was unexpected as a new ascension by Jean-Pierre had been repeatedly announced and repeatedly delayed. A final date was announced for his ascension. A crowd of spectators assembled at Place du Peyron to watch his ascent and were thus surprised when Sophie appeared. Jean-Pierre was ill and could not keep his promise, so Sophie came instead. She gave her husband’s apologies, entered the balloon’s basket, and then rose alone into the air. One newspaper reported on this singular event:
[The balloon’s] movement at first was slow, but when it ascended to about six hundred feet, she then threw out some ballast, and we soon lost sight of her, being confounded with the clouds, at nine or ten thousand feet of elevation, like them carried by a south-east wind towards our mountains.
Madame Blanchard assures us, that in this region of air, she met with snow, and experienced intense cold, of which she was more sensible as she was in a violent perspiration at her departure, and was very lightly cloathed. In rising higher, and getting about this region of snow, she met with clear-sun-shine, but it did not warm her. Soon, from a superior cold, there fell upon the balloon and on the aeronaut, surges of a clear and acqueous congellation; the cold was augmented by it, and the fall of this kind of hail, and its contact with her skin, still added to the disagreeableness of her situation.
The balloon appeared to her stationary, but soon the aerial traveller found out that it continued to ascend, by the symptoms that she experienced, viz. an acute pain in her ear, a strong bearing of the artery of the eye, the noise of which she thought she heard, a great difficulty in breathing, and the increase of cold, which chipped, so she expressed herself, the skin of her face and hands. In this state she prepared to descend, by drawing the cord of the valve, and it was not without some fear she felt it untie and fall into the appendage.
… Madame Blanchard re-entered, with pleasure, into the regions of snow and cold, and at length, saw, with encreased happiness, the earth, the mountains, and the woods, for she thought she had been carried towards the sea … The time appeared long, and she had forgotten her watch. Then also the spectators, who had for a long time lost sight of her, saw her again with delight, descending slowly towards the north, in the direction of St. Hypolitte. … She chose the place of her descent on a new-made road, and fixed her boat, by means of the stones which she found near her, and along, during twenty minutes, she made all necessary preparations for alighting; at length some peasants arrived, and with much kindness assisted her. This place is the neighbourhood of Lancyac, half a league from Valslannes, and five leagues from Montpelier. … At the house of Mr. Ricome, at Fontanes, this intrepid traveller experienced the most obliging hospitality.
Sophie was made for flight. She was tiny and many described her as being “small in stature, and very light.” Despite her “reckless courage” and willingness to risk everything in the air, on land she was said to be naturally timid, frightened, and terrified. Demonstrative of this is a story told by the Dutch poet Willem Bilderdijk and his wife who were traveling to France. Bilderdijk reported that when he and his wife boarded a diligence:
[N]o sooner did the heavy machine begin to move than [a female passenger] began to scream, and testified the most absurd degree of terror. … On arriving at Brussels, the lady was so much overcome that she announced her intention of stopping some days in that city to recruit her strength before venturing again to encounter the perils of a diligence.
After the woman left, Bilderdijk and his wife laughed heartily at her fear. It was not until they arrived in Paris and Bilderdijk found himself in a “tete-a-tete with the silly, frightened lady, whose nervous tremors in the Brussels diligence had afforded so much amusement to him and his wife,” that he discovered it was none other than the intrepid and courageous balloon flying Sophie.
During Sophie’s career, she became a favorite balloonist of Napoleon. She gained this position because André-Jacques Garnerin disgraced himself by failing to control the balloon that he sent up in celebration of Napoleon’s coronation. The balloon drifted to Rome, crashed into the Lago di Bracciano, and became the butt of many jokes at Napoleon’s expense. Napoleon thus replaced Garnerin with Sophie, whose ascents for Napoleon include one on 24 June 1810 for his marriage to Marie-Louise, the birth of his son and the son’s baptism in 1811, and at the “Féte de l’Emperor” in Milan on 15 August 1811 to mark his 42nd birthday.
Sophie did not just fly balloons. She also conducted several parachute experiments with her husband, and although she may have never actually jumped in parachute, she did send down parachuting dogs and launched both fireworks and pyrotechnics attached to parachutes. Her chief rival at the time was André-Jacques Garnerin’s niece, Élisa Garnerin, who made her first parachute jump from 1,000 meters after refusing to listening to the doctors who warned her that such audacious jumps might endanger her “delicate organs.”
When Jean-Pierre died on 7 March 1809, he and Sophie still had financial debt. To help resolve her money problems, Sophie remained as frugal as possible. She also choose a hydrogen-filled gas balloon (or Charlière) because it allowed her to ascend in a small basket that was little bigger than a chair and because hydrogen made it easier for her to operate her balloon, as she did not need to tend a fire to keep the balloon airborne. Moreover, because she was small and light, she could use a smaller amount of gas to inflate her balloon.
Having made over sixty flights in her lifetime, Sophie was bound to have her share of close calls. One close call occurred in 1811 when she reported she lost consciousness after ascending to avoid being trapped in a hailstorm near Vincennes, and, thus, allegedly, she remained in the air for 14 1/2 hours. When she crossed the Alps heading to Turin on 25 April 1812, the temperatures dropped so low she suffered a nose bleed and icicles formed on her hands and face. Several years later, in September of 1817, she was attempting to land in what she thought was a safe spot. In reality it was a marsh. As she landed, the canopy of her balloon caught in some trees, her basket tipped, and she became entangled in the rigging and landed in the water. She would have drowned if people had not rushed to save her.
Sophie’s last balloon flight is well-known. It occurred on the night of 6 July 1819 at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris and was her sixty-seventh flight. For this flight, Sophie was wearing a parachute, and clothed in white, wearing a white hat with white plumes. She climbed into her balloon around ten o’clock in the evening. She had been warned repeatedly about using fireworks and pyrotechnics with her balloon. However, the warnings went unheeded.
For some reason, she was uncharacteristically nervous on this night but still gave the signal and rose into the air. She was traveling in an illuminated basket from which fireworks were suspended. Sparks from the fireworks ignited the gas and the balloon caught fire. Sophie then became entangled in a net. At this point people said she was still alive and reported that they “heard her utter cries of agony and alarm.” People rushed to the area and some reported seeing the balloon’s basket tip with her hanging out. It was then “precipitated from the roof of the house to the pavement, and when the first assistance arrived she had ceased to breathe.”
Sophie’s horrifying death was front page news and reported by newspapers throughout Europe. Famous writers of the times also wrote of her fate. For example, Jules Verne mentioned her in Five Weeks in a Balloon and in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, he likened her fall to the thrill of gambling. Charles Dickens also commented on Sophie stating, “The jug goes often to the well, but is pretty sure to get cracked at last.”
- “Aerostation,” in Chester Courant, 20 August 1805
- Branzei, Sylvia, Rebel in a Dress, 2011
- Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Volumes 15-16, 1851
- Dickens, Charles, Household Words, Volume 7, 1858
- Dickens, Charles, Household Words, Volume 21, 1853
- “Melancholy Fate of Madame Blanchard, the Celebrated Aeronaut,” in Chester Courant, 20 July 1819
- Poole, John. Crotchets In the Air; or; an (Un) Scientific Account of a Balloon-Trip, 1838
- Scientific American, Volume 8, 1879