A Morsel Of Biscuit, A Glass Of Wine
Image Credit: Blanchard took 6 bottles of wine with him | Unsplash

The crowd gathered in the yard of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Prison took in the sight before them with a barely suppressed excitement. It was 10 am, on 9 January 1793, and they were about to witness history in the making. The Frenchman they had all gathered to see — even President George Washington was present, in honour of the occasion — was making the final adjustments to the apparatus that would carry him into the sky: a hot-air balloon. It would be the first-ever balloon flight in America, although Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the man performing the feat, had already conducted 44 such flights in Europe previously, becoming one of the age's celebrated aeronauts. This was to be his 45th ascension. 

As the balloon tugged at the ropes that tethered it to the ground, Blanchard conducted a last round of inspections: the instruments he'd be carrying for making observations about the weather at various altitudes, the ballast, and two items that his friends had pressed on him — a small black dog to keep him company on the flight, and some refreshments. 

The careful survey was critical. Eight years ago nearly to the day, Blanchard had historically crossed the English Channel in a balloon, but the endeavour had been marred by friction with his financier, Dr John Jeffries. There had been a ludicrous chain of events, which included Blanchard barricading himself into his quarters (not wanting Jeffries to share the limelight by accompanying him on the flight), Jeffries discovering that Blanchard had sewn weights into his vest just so he could claim the balloon was over its limit (and thus prevent Jeffries from boarding), and finally, the men having to divest themselves of nearly all their clothing — and pee over the edge of the basket/carrier! — when the balloon became too heavy mid-flight.

He was offered a meal of excellent potatoes post landing | Unsplash

Anyway, back to Philadelphia: Blanchard wasn't anticipating adventures of a similar kind on this flight for certain. Once in the air, he began to record his observations and measurements. Wanting to carry back samples of "the atmospheric air in which [he] was floating", Blanchard tipped over the contents of six bottles that a friend had stocked the balloon with — "diverse liquors", he notes — and did the needful. Then, his experiments carried out, he decided to partake of some food, writing later: "I strengthened my stomach with a morsel of biscuit and a glass of wine" (clearly, the six emptied bottles weren't the only spirits Blanchard had on board). There was an additional surprise for the aeronaut: a dose of ether. Not yet common as a medical anesthetic, ether was used by some as a recreational substance, and Blanchard writes that a few drops of it left him "much refreshed".

Finally, when he descended — in the vicinity of New Jersey — Blanchard pulled out another (saved) bottle of wine to offer the astounded local who found him. Blanchard didn't speak English, and while Washington had provided him with a "passport" (a document stating that the Frenchman was to be treated with due courtesy), the Jersey man couldn't read, so they had to rely on the wine to forge a companionable bond as they folded up the balloon and packed it away in the carrier until more help arrived. 

The residents of a nearby house offered Blanchard a meal of "excellent potatoes", but he was still wound up from the flight, eager to get back to Philadelphia, and couldn't bring himself to eat. Conveyed to his destination in the carriage of a Jonathan Penrose, Esq. it was only during a pit-stop at the latter's Southwark home that Blanchard, reassured that his mission would soon be complete, finally ate a proper meal.