Lady Icarus: Balloonomania and the Brief, Bold Life of Sophie Blanchard
A riveting middle-grade biography about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to work as a professional aeronaut in France in the late 1700s, set against the thrilling backdrop of early flight.
Before Amelia Earhart, there was Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to earn her living in the air. While no one knows the fate of Earhart, a terrified crowd of thousands looked on as French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard met her end in a tragic blaze of glory over the streets of Paris in 1819.
But first, Blanchard made nearly 70 spectacular flights, survived a revolution, and become a court favorite of the emperor Napoleon (who gave her the title, "Aeronaut of the Official Festivals") and later of the King of France. Set against the backdrop of the history of flight, watch as Balloonmania-- a phenomenon that riveted all of Europe-- took hold and inspired a great many artists authors, and dreamers.
This lively scrapbook-style biography with more than fifty black-and-white photos throughout, introduces a frightened, nervous girl who became a fearless legend in the skies.
An Excerpt fromLady Icarus: Balloonomania and the Brief, Bold Life of Sophie Blanchard
Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant, later known as Sophie Blanchard, was born March 25, 1778, in the remote hamlet of Trois-Canons, near La Rochelle, on the sunny west coast of France.
She would arrive in the world a few years before the first really big event of aeronautic history; but as the story goes, Sophie “met” her future husband and ballooning partner even before she was born.
It was early springtime. Like all peasants bound to the land, Sophie’s father would have been out tilling the fields, while her pregnant mother kept the family’s humble inn. Peasants delivered an injured stranger to the inn that morning, an aeronaut on a makeshift stretcher. His balloon had crash-landed in a nearby meadow.
Peeled from a tangle of rope and deflated taffeta, the tiny spitfire of a pilot was battered and bruised but alive.
Over the coming days, the Armants offered Jean-Pierre Blanchard care and comfort, though the mysterious stranger had no money to repay their hospitality.
“Listen and mark my words,” the airman told the couple on his way out, grinning at the mother-to-be who had so generously tended his injuries. “Fortune cannot always desert me. In sixteen years, if alive,” he vowed, “I will return. If the child who will soon be born to you should be a boy, I will adopt him.”
Exchanging a glance, his hosts chuckled politely.
“If a girl,” Blanchard added, in that boasting tone of his, “I will marry her.”
A few years after that alleged crash landing in a field in Trois-Canons, Jean-Pierre Blanchard was in Paris, feverishly designing flying machines.
Like diplomat Benjamin Franklin, Blanchard was an inventor, and like Franklin and others in the capital at the time who were interested in scientific progress, he was keeping a close watch on the experiments of two brothers in the South of France.
Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were paper manufacturers with ties to King Louis XVI of France. Like many prosperous, educated European men of their day, they had the free time to be amateur or “gentleman” scientists.
The ingenious brothers had discovered a way of trapping heated air in a giant bag or balloon, and they were ready to test out their newfangled aerostat, or flying machine, in a public demonstration.
On June 5th, a lucky crowd collected in a field near Annonay’s town square to bear witness. As the balloon’s massive folds of fabric and paper filled with heat from a roaring fire, it must have seemed to them a strange sorcery.
The Montgolfiers’ creation stirred, took form, and rose in a gelatinous mass with eight sweaty men holding fast to its open base. At Joseph’s signal, the men set the straining balloon free, to a collective gasp from the audience.
To the amazement of the small crowd, the balloon sailed up some six thousand feet and floated for ten minutes before a waning current dropped it on terra firma a mile and a half away. Those present had just witnessed the first passengerless hot-air flight in history.
The moment news of the flight reached the French capital, the scientific community of Paris—including King Louis XVI and the Royal Academy of Sciences, as well as Ben Franklin and other visiting dignitaries from America—was abuzz. “The balloons engross all attention,” Franklin wrote.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard surely also knew of the historic launch.
Born in 1753, he had fled rural Normandy as a young teenager, determined to escape the poverty he had grown up in. Small and scrappy, he was used to elbowing his way through the world and soon found work in Paris as a mechanic. In his free time, he invented things, though not all of his inventions succeeded. He was still a boy when he dreamed up a rattrap built around a pistol, an ingenious hydraulic pump, and a type of velocipede, a forerunner of the bicycle.
Since the young inventor had lived in the capital, he had grown obsessed with flight and had begun designing winged flying machines, including what he called a vaisseau volant (a “flying ship” or “flying vessel”) with foot pedals and hand levers that flapped four massive wings.
Not to be upstaged or outdone by the Montgolfiers in the south, Blanchard rushed out a bold, premature, and wildly exaggerated announcement in the Journal de Paris:
Within a very few days I shall be ready to demonstrate my own aerostatic machine, which will climb and dive on command, and fly in a straight line at a constant altitude. I shall be at the controls myself, and have sufficient confidence in my design to have no fear of repeating the fate of Icarus.
But his ambitious airship never got off the ground.
For the time being, Jean-Pierre Blanchard was forced to step back and watch while the race to the skies went on . . . without him.
Encouraged by King Louis XVI and the Royal Academy of Sciences, a young physicist, Professor Jacques Charles, had set out almost at once to scientifically duplicate the Montgolfiers’ experiment.
In a twist of fate that would make Charles the “father of the gas balloon,” a newspaper report of the Montgolfiers’ process mistakenly listed hydrogen instead of hot air as the balloon’s lifting agent. The error led Charles and his partners, the Robert brothers, to develop a successful hydrogen prototype in the brothers’ workshop in Paris.
There was just one small problem with the hydrogen balloon: hydrogen itself. As Joseph Montgolfier already knew, the gas escaped easily from light containers such as paper, silk, and animal bladders. Cooking it up in large batches was a slow, painstaking, costly, and potentially explosive process of injecting iron filings into casks of diluted sulfuric acid; as this acid-iron brew bubbled, hydrogen was forced through interconnected tin pipes.
While Charles and his team toiled behind the scenes, public excitement swelled. “Among our circle of friends,” wrote one philosopher, “all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky.”
With king and country watching, the demonstration could not be put off much longer. After days of trial and error, Charles’s weary crew finally got the pink-and-yellow balloon named the Globe fueled up and ready for takeoff.
On August 27, 1783, a restless crowd of more than fifty thousand flooded into Champ de Mars, the park that would eventually contain the Eiffel Tower.
A cannon sounded at five o’clock, and the men at the ropes released the balloon. To the spectators, who included Benjamin Franklin and young John Quincy Adams, who was in Paris at the time traveling with his diplomat father, the unpiloted ascent must have felt as if it were over before it began.
Adams recorded the balloon’s progress in his diary: “It rose at once, for some time perpendicular, and then slanted. The weather, was unluckily very Cloudy, so that in less than 2. minutes it was out of sight: it went up very regularly and with a great swiftness.” Franklin described the sight in a letter: “a little Rain had wet it, so that it shone, and made an agreeable appearance.” The Globe shrank as it rose, seeming to Franklin “scarce bigger than an orange,” and soon, “invisible, the clouds concealing it.”
A companion turned to the American diplomat and asked earnestly, “What good is it?”
Franklin replied, “What good is a newborn baby?”
Forty-five minutes later, when a tear in the fabric released some of the balloon’s hydrogen, the meandering Globe—with men on horseback in hot pursuit—touched down in rural Gonesse, fifteen miles northeast of Paris.
Adams concluded in his diary entry that the ongoing experiment in flight was an important one, “and if it succeeds it may become very useful to mankind.”
But Franklin told his correspondent that the first unwitting—and terrified—specimens of humankind to see the twisting monstrosity, having never before seen or heard of a balloon, believed the deflating giant was alive, a beast, and they attacked it with stones and pitchforks.
“The creature, shaking and bounding, dodged the first blows,” reported one Paris journal, but soon the balloon “received a mortal wound, and collapsed with a long sigh.” A howl of victory sounded from the crowd, as one man inched forward and gave it a final stab with his dagger. The men lashed the giant corpse to a horse and dragged it roughly through the fields.
The incident prompted the French government to issue a proclamation—these “beasts” were for the betterment of humankind, a sign of progress—asking citizens who found grounded balloons in the future to stand down and notify the newspapers.
The sensational launches in Annonay and Paris were only the beginning of what would be, for many, an Annus Mirabilis, a year of wonders.