Benjamin Franklin Papers
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From Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Banks, 1[–2] December 1783

To Joseph Banks

ALS: Yale University Library; press copy of ALS: Harvard University Library

Passy, Dec. 1.[–2] 1783—

Dear Sir,

In mine of yesterday, I promis’d to give you an Account of Messrs Charles & Robert’s Experiment, which was to have been made on this Day, and at which I intended to be present. Being a little indispos’d, & the Air cool, and the Ground damp, I declin’d going into the Garden of the Tuilleries where the Balloon was plac’d, not knowing how long I might be oblig’d to wait there before it was ready to depart; and chose to stay in my Carriage near the Statue of Louis XV.9 from whence I could well see it rise, & have an extensive View of the Region of Air thro’ which, as the Wind sat, it was likely to pass. The Morning was foggy, but about One aClock, the Air became tolerably clear, to the great Satisfaction of the Spectators, who were infinite, Notice having been given of the intended Experiment several Days before in the Papers, so that all Paris was out, either about the Tuilleries, or the Quays & Bridges, in the Fields, the Streets, at the Windows, or on the Tops of Houses, besides the Inhabitants of all the Towns & Villages of the Environs. Never before was a philosophical Experiment so magnificently attended. Some Guns were fired to give Notice, that the Departure of the great Balloon was near, and a small one was discharg’d which went to an amazing Height,1 there being but little Wind to make it deviate from its perpendicular Course, and, at length the Sight of it was lost. Means were used, I am told, to prevent the great Balloon’s rising so high as might indanger its Bursting. Several Bags of Sand were taken on board before the Cord that held it down was cut; and the whole Weight being then too much to be lifted, such a Quantity was discharg’d as to permit its Rising slowly. Thus it would sooner arrive at that Region where it would be in Equilibrio with the surrounding Air, and by discharging more Sand afterwards, it might go higher if desired.2 Between One & Two a Clock, all Eyes were gratified with seeing it rise majestically from among the Trees, and ascend gradually above the Buildings. A most beautiful Spectacle! When it was about 200 feet high, the brave Adventurers held out and wav’d a little white Pennant, on both Sides their Carr, to salute the Spectators, who return’d loud Claps of Applause. The Wind was very little, so that the Object, tho’ moving to the Northward, continued long in View; and it was a great while before the admiring People began to disperse. The Persons embark’d were Mr Charles, Professor of Experimental Philosophy, & a zealous Promoter of that Science, and One of the Messieurs Robert, the very ingenious Constructors of the Machine.3 When it arriv’d at its height, which I suppose might be 3 or 400 Toises,4 it appear’d to have only horisontal Motion. I had a Pocket Glass, with which I follow’d it, till I lost Sight, first of the Men, then of the Car, and when I last saw the Balloon, it appear’d no bigger than a Walnut. I write this at 7 in the Evening. What became of them is not yet known here. I hope they descended by Day-light, so as to see & avoid falling among Trees or on Houses, and that the Experiment was compleated without any mischievous Accident which the Novelty of it & the want of Experience might well occasion. I am the more anxious for the Event, because I am not well inform’d of the Means provided for letting themselves gently down, and the Loss of these very ingenious Men, would not only be a Discouragement to the Progress of the Art, but be a sensible Loss to Science & Society.

I shall inclose one of the Tickets of Admission, on which the Globe was represented, as originally intended, but is altered by the Pen to show its real State when it went off.5 When the Tickets were engraved, the Car was to have been hung to the Neck of the Globe, as represented by a little Drawing I have made in the Corner A. I suppose it may have been an Apprehension of Danger in straining too much the Balloon or tearing the Silk, that induc’d the Constructors to throw a Net over it, fix’d to a Hoop which went round its Middle, and to hang the Car to that Hoop, as you see in Fig. B.—

Tuesday Morning, Dec 2. I am reliev’d from my Anxiety, by hearing that the Adventurers descended well near l’Isle Adam, before Sunset. This Place is near 7 Leagues from Paris.— Had the Wind blown fresh, they might have gone much farther.—

If I receive any farther Particulars of Importance I shall communicate them hereafter.

With great Esteem, I am, Dear Sir, Your most obedient & most humble Servant

B Franklin

P.S. Tuesday Evening.

Since writing the above, I have receiv’d the printed Paper & the Manuscript, containing some Particulars of the Experiment, which I enclose.—6 I hear farther, that the Travellers had perfect Command of their Carriage, descending as they pleas’d by letting some of the inflammable Air escape, and rising again by discharging some Sand: that they descended over a Field so low as to talk with the Labourers in passing, and mounted again to pass a Hill. The little Balloon falling at Vincennes, shows that mounting higher it met with a Current of Air in a contrary Direction: An Observation that may be of use to future aerial Voyagers.—

Sir Joseph Banks, Bart.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9Until 1792 the statue of Louis XV stood on the place Louis XV, today the place de la Concorde: Hillairet, Rues de Paris, I, 375. BF would have been eligible to observe the launch from a central enclosure at the basin of the Tuileries garden, which was reserved for royals, ministers, academicians, and subscribers. Ticket holders flooded the park, and all others were kept outside the garden by a heavy security force: Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, XXIV, 54. For an account of the entire event, see Gillispie, Montgolfier Brothers, pp. 56–64.

1Etienne Montgolfier, Charles’s rival, was given the honor of releasing the trial balloon, which measured five and a half feet in diameter. In the same spirit of amity, BF was quoted on Dec. 5 as saying that “le machine aérostatique étoit un enfant don’t M. Montgolfier étoit le pere & M. Charles la mere nourrice”: Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, Premiere suite de la description des expériences aérostatiques … (Paris, 1784), p. 41; Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, XXIV, 58, 65. This was an elaboration on his widely known comparison of a balloon to a newborn baby; see XL, 545–7.

2In addition to discharging ballast, the passengers could maintain constant pressure inside the balloon and control altitude by releasing hydrogen through a valve at the top of the globe or through another opening near the bottom that could be operated by hand: Gillispie, Montgolfier Brothers, p. 58.

3The initial plan had been for Charles to make the first ascent, with the balloon tethered to the ground, and take various scientific measurements; the Robert brothers would then embark on an aerial voyage. The first part of the experiment was canceled, however, and Charles accompanied the younger Robert in the balloon: Jour. de Paris, Nov. 19 and Dec. 2, 1783.

4The balloon rose to an altitude of 300 toises, about 1,800 feet: Faujas de Saint-Fond, Premiere suite de la description, p. 42.

5The ticket has not been found. A ticket of admission is reproduced in François-Louis Bruel, Histoire Aeronautique par les monuments peints, sculptés, dessinés et gravés des origines à 1830 (Paris, 1909), plate 47.

As a subscriber to the experiment, BF received 30 additional tickets; see our annotation to his letter to Banks of Oct. 8. Through WTF, he gave away two of them to visiting American merchants William Smith and Eliphalet Fitch. On Aug. 19 Fitch had sent JA a book for BF, whom he had probably encountered on a trip to Paris the previous spring: Adams Papers, XIV, 430n; XV, 233–4, 367n; Charles Storer to WTF, Nov. 17, 1783 (APS); WTF to Smith and Fitch, Nov. 26, 1783 (Mass. Hist. Soc.).

6The “printed paper” was most likely the Dec. 2 issue of the Jour. de Paris, which contained a description of the launch and a short procèsverbal attesting to the time and place of the balloon’s landing. The “manuscript” was a copy in L’Air de Lamotte’s hand of a communication that was evidently sent to BF. It is in two sections. The first relates an eyewitness account given by the chevalier de Cubières, who was present at the balloon’s landing and returned to Paris late that night, when he recounted events to the people gathered at Charles’s residence. (Charles himself did not return until the next day.) After the landing, Cubières explained, Charles ascended by himself to make scientific observations, and set down again four and a half miles away. The second section of the manuscript reports that the test balloon was discovered by children in Vincennes. (A press copy of this manuscript is filed with the press copy of the present letter. The text was published in Abbott L. Roth, “Benjamin Franklin and the First Balloons,” Proc. of the American Antiquarian Soc., XVIII (1907), 272–3. Charles’s account was published in the Jour. de Paris on Dec. 3.)

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