Sophie Blanchard was destined to become an aéronaute. As a little one safely ensconced in her mother’s womb, a stranger passed through her tiny village in 1778 and happened to enter into conversation with her mother. He told her that if her baby was a girl, he would return sometime to marry her. Obviously one to keep his word on such matters, despite having abandoned his first wife, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, by then a famous balloonist, took Sophie Armand as his wife.
The invention of the balloon a decade earlier had been an instant success. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques Etienne launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. While this first balloon went a little astray and was destroyed on landing by frightened villagers, it didn’t take long for all of France, indeed, all of Europe to have balloon fever.
Sophie took to the skies as a duck to the water. Her husband Jean-Pierre was very well known for his crossing of the English Channel in a balloon in 1785, and had flown his balloon at many important state and royal events. He was in fact considered the royal aéronaute to many European monarchies. With Sophie by his side, however, his popularity grew even further. Sophie’s first solo ascension was in Toulouse in 1805, where she floated alone among the clouds for several hours. However, her fortunes were to change somewhat in 1808 when her husband suffered a bout of ‘apoplexy’ during his 66th ascension at the Chateau du Bois in the Netherlands, at a celebration for Louis Bonaparte during his brief sojourn as king of Hollande. Blanchard fell as much as eighteen metres to the ground, was taken back to France, and died a year later from his injuries.
As her husband lay dying, penniless and heavily in debt, he had some final words for his beloved wife.
“After I die, my dear, you will have no other recourse but to drown or hang yourself”.
Thankfully for the history of ballooning Sophie was inspired rather than defeated by these words. She soon became the darling of the balloon entertainment industry.
Gorgeously decorated balloons sparked new fashion trends all over Europe and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs.
Balloons seemed to be everywhere:
“Among all our circle of friends, at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky.”
It’s hardly surprising that women’s hairstyles were affected by the balloon craze. The higher the balloons, the higher the hair!
Sophie was not the first balloonist, not even the first female balloonist, but she was the first woman to make her ascents a grand and exciting spectacle.
Such was her success she was a part of the official celebrations in 1810 for the marriage of Napoleon Bonaparte to Marie-Louise d’Autriche on the Champs-de-Mars in Paris.
She performed in Milan in 1811 for the birthday of Napoleon; again in 1811 in Vincennes she ascended to such a height to avoid a storm she lost consciousness; in Turin in 1812 she was so high she had a nosebleed and her hands were covered in ice; and in Nantes on her fifty second ascension her balloon descended into a swampy area and she narrowly escaped death by drowning.
At this time much of Paris was full of green and natural spaces, so there was no shortage of launching and descending sites. In 1814, the beginning of the Restoration period in France, Louis XVIII made his triumphant return to Paris. An important part of the official celebrations, Sophie began her ascent from Île Saint-Louis, the natural island in the Seine river next to Île de la Cité. Admired by the people of Paris below, the balloon was adorned with coloured glasses hung from the basket which shimmered and reflected in the sky. Louis XVIII was so enthralled by her performances he named Sophie the ‘aérostière officielle de la Restauration’ (official aeronaut of the Restoration’).
An insatiable public soon became used to tricks such as parachuting dogs launching from the basket or fireworks exploding as they cascaded down with a parachute. They wanted demonstrations which were higher, faster and more dangerous. Sophie, one of very few women in a field dominated by male aéronautes, decided to try something audacious and daring. Suspended ten metres below the basket of her hot air balloon was a circle of ‘feux de bengale’, or flares, which would be lit as the balloon mounted the sky. The watching crowd cried out in wonder and amazement at the magical sight of fire in the sky and the rain of gold, silver, green and blue sparks falling to the ground.
You would think a combination of fireworks and the highly flammable hydrogen gas filling the hot air balloon is perhaps quite dangerous. For the first nineteen times Sophie performed her new act she did so to perfection; the distance between the feux de bengale underneath the basket and the opening of the balloon was large enough to prevent any fire. And the twentieth time? Read on.
6 July, 1819, the Tivoli, Paris. It was to be the sixty seventh balloon flight for the intrepid aéronaute Sophie Blanchard. The Tivoli was an amusement park popular with all Parisians, and on this particular night there were orchestras and dancing, acrobatic displays and fire-eaters. Sophie’s balloon performance was to be the highlight of the show.
The balloon rose with its famed ‘feux de bengale’ suspended as usual; the crowd below looked on in awe. But Sophie hoped to wow the crowd like they had never been wowed before. Hung below the basket was a second set of fireworks attached to a parachute which she intended to launch as the first flames started to fizzle out. However, these needed to be lit with a lance she would herself set on fire in the basket. Perilously close to the highly flammable hydrogen gas.
Which of course caught fire.
At first the spectators believed they were watching a part of the performance, calling out ‘bravo!’ and applauding wildly. But in a matter of seconds they could only watch in horror at Sophie’s valiant attempts to put out the fire, and then as she slumped to the bottom of the basket waiting for a miracle.
Experts later agreed that if the wind had been blowing in an easterly direction the balloon would have come down gradually in the Monceaux plains only a couple of kilometres away. Unfortunately for Sophie she was pushed ‘all over Paris’ in the opposite direction, the basket struck the roof of a tall house, she immediately tumbled out and fell headfirst to the ground. As she fell she was heard to cry out:
Such was the popularity of Sophie Blanchard her death was reported widely.
A balloon memorial was placed on her grave in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
These poignant words at the memorial ensure that Sophie lives on in history:
A la mémoire de Mage Sophie Armand,
victime de son art et de son intrépidité.
elle fut enlevée a ses amis le 6 juillet 1819,
dans sa 43e année.(In memory of Madame Sophie Armand,
victim of her art and her courage,
she was taken from her friends on 6 July 1819,
in her 43rd year.