First Fatal Balloon Accident in Eighteenth Century

The same year that the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace implicated Marie Antoinette, the first fatal balloon accident happened. It occurred on 15 June 1785. The balloon was piloted by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a French inventor and well-known balloon pioneer, and his companion Pierre Romain. They had been attempting for some time to be the first aeronauts to cross the English Channel between France and England. However, as they were struggling to be the first, another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and his American companion, Dr John Jeffries, succeeded in crossing the channel in a hydrogen gas balloon on 7 January 1785.

Pilatre de Rozier, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Pilâtre de Rozier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rozier and Romain still decided that they would cross the English Channel. At the time the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, were probably the most well-known of all balloonists having launched the first piloted ascent and having invented the Montgolfière-style hot air balloon. However, Rozier realized the Montgolfier’s hot air balloon was incapable of making the flight across the channel. That was because a large stock of fuel was needed and so to solve the problem Rozier created his own balloon.

It was a hybrid balloon with separate chambers for a non-heated lifting gas (such as hydrogen or helium) and a heated lifting gas (similar to what was used in the Montgolfier’s balloons). The flight was planned for the autumn of 1784. Unfortunately, before Rozier and his companion, Romain, could make it into the air and across the English Channel, another Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who married Marie Madeleine Sophie Armand,* and an American doctor named John Jeffries, made the flight using a hydrogen gas balloon on 7 January 1785.

Despite Blanchard and Jeffries’s success, Rozier was not deterred. He still wanted to cross the English Channel and in fact was engaged to a Miss Susan Dyer of Yorkshire. She would be waiting for him on the other side and they planned to get married immediately upon his arrival in England.

Finally, about five months later, on 15 June 1785, Rozier and Romain had everything ready to ascend and make the flight. The balloon was lifting off from the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer around seven o’clock in the morning. It was said to be “prodigiously fine” and that there was a “fair wind.” Many spectators were there to witness the historic occasion. Among them was a reporter for the Dublin Evening Post who described Rozier’s balloon in the following fashion:

“The machine which ascended … consisted of a Balloon filled with Inflammable Air, of a Spherical Form thirty-seven feet in diameter; under this Balloon a Montgolfier, or Fire Balloon was attached to the Net of the upper Balloon by a Number of Cords, which were fixed to a Hoop of a Diameter rather greater than the Montgolfier; from this Hoop the Cords descended in perpendicular Lines to the wicker Gallery which supported the and the Ballast, consisting of Brushwood, Faggots, and Staves of Casks; within these perpendicular Cords the Montgolfier was placed; it formed a moveable Curtain, composed of a very light Silk, lined with what is commonly termed Silver Paper. This Kind of Ballast was selected for the Purpose of supporting the Ascension as long as possible, by burning a small Quantity at a Time, to expel Part of the Atmospheric Air from the Air Balloon, and by that Means to gain Levity, which was increased or diminished by raising of lowering the Curtain.”[1]

First fatal balloon accident

Balloon of Rozier and Romain with curtain fully extended, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

From the moment the balloon lifted off, there seemed to be problems, but no one thought the first fatal balloon accident was about to happen. The Northampton Mercury noted the aeronauts appeared to take the “best possible Direction; when, for a few Seconds, they appeared stationary; then took a Direction to the left, … then a contrary Direction.”[2] It seemed as if nature was against the balloon and its balloonists. The balloon flew out over the sea, but the winds blew it back inland about three miles while at the same the balloon increased both in altitude and size.

The inability of the aeronauts to control the balloon caused some witnesses to later claim the aeronauts appeared to be “in a state of great discomposure and inquietude.”[3] Moreover, it was reported:

“Rozier was observed to exert his strength in drawing the cord of the valve, and … Romain repeatedly jump[ed], in order that by suddenly alighting upon the flooring of the gallery a descent might be accelerated; and at this time the fire suspended in the chafing dish for supplying the Montgolfier with rarefied air appeared to be extinguished. At length the balloon perceptibly lowered, and a vapour was perceived to issue from the valve in the upper compartment; and this was instantly followed by a flame, of about two feet in height, which was not perceptible for more than three or four seconds.”[5]

first fatal balloon accident - the balloon on fire just before its crash

The balloon on fire just before its crash. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The accident was thought to have happened by an “electric fire communicating to the inflammable air issued from the valve [because] the instant preceding the accident, a small white cloud was observed just above the upper part of the balloon.”[4] Witnesses reported that after the fire began the balloon fell with “incredible Velocity.” It crashed near Wimereux in the Pas-de-Calais.

A letter sent to a man in Dover by a witness of the first fatal balloon accident, stated Rozier was dead before the balloon crashed. Apparently, shortly after the fire and the balloon’s collapse, Rozier was thrown about and suffered a “violent Contusion on his Breast.”[6] They fell near the sea shore about four miles from Boulogne and witnesses at the crash site claimed Romain breathed for a few moments after the crash but then “uttered the Exclamation — Oh, Jesu!”[7] before expiring. In addition, one gentleman who had met and shaken hands with Rozier earlier was also present at the wreckage. He noted:

“The two intrepid Adventurers were dashed to Pieces. I was with the Bodies in half an Hour, and never saw any Thing so shocking. I examined the Bodies, but do not find any Thing broke above the Middle, so that they must have come down perpendicularly, but their Legs and Thighs are broke in many Places.”[8]

Death of Rozier and Romain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several things happened after the tragedy. First, some people claimed that Rozier had foreseen what was about to happen and instinctively knew that he would be involved in the first fatal ballon accident because he made out his will and said to his most closest friend before the lift off:

“Mon Amie, adieu! Peut-etre á jamais. Si je ne reussi pas, n’ímporte: Je mourier content, car c’est pour mon honneur.” [In English it essentially says, “My friend, farewell! Maybe forever. If I do not succeed, it does not matter: I will die happy, because I’m doing it for my honor.”[9]

The second thing that happened was that King Louis XVI decided to honor Rozier’s ascension. He ordered a monument be built along a roadside near the crash site. A plaque noted the event and was described in the following manner:

“On it is seen a balloon burst and overset, and around it are several French and Latin inscriptions, allusive to the fatal catastrophe.”[10]

first fatal balloon accident - Rozier's monument.

Monument placed by King Louis XVI in honor of Rozier. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The third thing after the first fatal balloon accident was the unfortunate death of Rozier’s fiancée. She supposedly died eight days after him. Her death was attributed to “excessive grief,” or in other words suicide.

A number of critics also spoke out about the dangers of ballooning because of the first fatal balloon accident. For instance, the Saunders’s News-Letter remarked:

“[T]he dreadful accident which has befallen … Rozier … and his companion, will probably give a check to the use of those dangerous machines … It is a pity they are not suppressed by Government.”[11]

Another English newspaper, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, was more vocal.

“With Regard to Balloons in this Country, it were a happy Thing if this Accident should put a Stop to them altogether. They only disturb Industry and collect Crowds of Pick-Pockets, and all this for the Purpose of breaking a Dog’s Bones, and making a general Holiday, without any … good Consequence to Science.”[12]


*There are many combinations for Marie Madeleine Sophie Armand’s name that include including Marie Sophie Armant, Madeleine-Sophie Armant Blanchard, Madeleine-Sophie Blanchard, and Marie Madeleine-Sophie Blanchard.

References:

  • [1] “Unfortunate Aerionauts,” in Dublin Evening Post, 25 June 1785, p. 2.
  • [2] “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman of Boulogne, to Mr. Fector, at Dover,” in Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1785, p. 1.
  • [3] –, in Saunders’s News-Letter, 11 July 1785, p. 1.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman of Boulogne, to Mr. Fector, at Dover,” p. 1.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “Thursday’s Post,” in Derby Mercury, 16 June 1785, p. 4.
  • [9] “Irish House of Commons, June 11,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 23 June 1785, p. 3.
  • [10] The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Volumes 78-79., 1786, p. 272.
  • [11] “London, June 18,” in Saunders’s News-Letter, 23 June 1785, p. 1.
  • [12] “Irish House of Commons, June 13,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 23 June 1785, p. 3.

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