It was with some interest that I came across this article about inventor Franky Zapata’s failed attempt to cross the English Channel on his flyboard (he only made it halfway across the 22-mile channel before he ran into trouble at his refueling point). This is because one of my favorite essays I wrote in undergrad at the University of Guelph was from a 4th year course on the public sphere (ie. Newspapers and magazines) in England in the 1780s. For my essay I wrote about the ballooning craze in England in 1785. Hot air balloons had been invented in France in 1783 but lack of government interest in England led to it becoming an entrepreneur’s paradise as balloonists competed for attention. The craze eventually petered out after deaths and the basic physical fact that balloons only go up and down, and aren’t all that exciting after you’ve seen it go up once. It was so popular during that time, however, that pickpockets were even able to snatch Edmund Burke’s wallet as “thousands look[ed] up in astonishment” (the title I gave my paper).
Though the article on Zapata’s attempt mentions the first powered flight over the English Channel, it leaves out the first unpowered flight. I wrote in the paper, “After three successful flights in France, Jean-Pierre Francois Blanchard ascended from Chelsea in October 1784, and became the first person to cross the English Channel by air on January 7, 1785, with an American, Dr. Jeffries, as a passenger.”
Not everyone who tried this was so lucky: “Pilatre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a balloon [in France], sought to cross the English Channel from France to England, which was difficult due to the prevailing winds. He set out with M. Romaine on June 15, 1785, flying a machine that combined a Montgolfier [fire-powered] and a hydrogen balloon, and the inevitable explosion occurred over the rocks on the Channel shore, where they both fell to their deaths.” Luckily, Zapata’s failed attempt was far less fatal.
I should also mention that my professor for this course, Donna Andrew, who has published a number of books on this time period and helped instill in me an affinity for archival research (which at that time was all on microfilm), was as dedicated as they come; she’d take our stack of papers to the library, find the books in our bibliography, and check to see that we’d cited them correctly.
I got a B on my paper - she correctly criticized me, despite it being "well written," for being too dependent in its thesis on a secondary source. Years later I realized I should have focused on the public / private divide that balloons broke. You see, some balloonists got the capital to fund their balloon building and hydrogen-making through subscription - those with means would offer them a portion of the capital needed and in return were invited into a closed space to witness the balloon launch. The problem is that balloons rise out of those private spaces into public space, and people skipped work and climbed onto roofs to watch balloon launches. I realized teasing out the ways in which balloons broke the bonds of subscription-funded private space and entered into public space would have made for a much more interesting paper. A future project for a rainy day, perhaps.
Here's a lecture by her discussing the culture surrounding, and criticism of, dueling in 18th and 19th century England: