In the COVID era, when so many people worked from home, some embarrassing situations led to widespread warnings. Among the most notable was the caution that when you are in a Zoom meeting, it is a good idea to wear pants. No one wants to offer a brilliant insight during a meeting, only to be remembered as the person who stood up while still on camera, revealing less than a full set of work clothes.
More than two centuries before the “Please Wear Pants” advice made the rounds through the corporate world, two men made their mark on history with their accomplishments, but when it was all over, witnesses to the event were left with the shocking memory of these two pioneers dressed only in their underwear.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard and hot air balloons seemed to grow up together. A mere six months after the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated that their hot air balloon could carry a sheep, duck, and rooster safely, Blanchard built his own hydrogen balloon and became one of the first humans to fly in a lighter-than-air vehicle. The balloon would also carry him to international fame.
On January 7, 1785, he and American physician John Jeffries departed from Dover, England, and made the first hot air balloon flight across the English Channel. The flight nearly ended in disaster. About two-thirds of the way across the channel, the balloon developed a leak. In a desperate attempt to lighten to load, the men threw all extraneous items overboard, including their coats and pants. This apparently did the trick, and they arrived in France to great acclaim and dressed only in their underwear.
The pioneer airmen may have found their pants to be an unnecessary encumbrance, but there was one thing they did not dare cast overboard. Included in their cargo was a package of letters, which they successfully delivered. Those letters became the first pieces of airmail. They also were the first airmail to be sent internationally.
Blanchard capitalized on his fame, becoming the Charles Lindberg or Neil Armstrong of his day. He traveled to different countries, demonstrating this fantastic new mode of travel. In the process, he became the first person to travel in a hot air balloon in Belgium, Germany, the Netherland, and Poland.
With 44 European flights under his belt, Blanchard decided to bring the hot air balloon to the United States. Arriving in Philadelphia on December 9, 1792, he was heralded as a celebrity and hero. By this point, he was the veteran of 44 flights One month after his arrival, he was ready to create yet one more piece of history. On January 9, 1793, crowds started assembling early in the morning. Cannons sounded every fifteen minutes, building excitement with every blast. Blanchard worked to prepare the balloon for the big event, but he paused when the most distinguished spectator arrived. President George Washington approached the airman, and the two men engaged in a brief conversation.
With the hour of departure at hand, Washington wished Blanchard well and handed him a piece of paper. It was a presidential letter of introduction. Since Blanchard did not speak English, Washington’s letter was designed to assist him upon landing on some unsuspecting person’s property. It requested the person to “aid him with that humanity and goodwill, which may render honor to their country, and justice to an individual so distinguished by his efforts to establish and advance an art, in order to make it useful to mankind in general.” At 10:00 a.m., the balloon lifted off, carrying Blanchard and Washington’s letter, which became the first piece of airmail in the United States.
For 46 minutes, Blanchard soared southeast at about 20 miles per hour. Once airborne, he conducted three experiments: testing the strength of a magnet, measuring his pulse, and capturing some air in bottles.
The balloon came to rest in Deptford, New Jersey. The astonished property owner cautiously approached the mysterious vehicle. Blanchard handed him the letter from Washington. Unfortunately, the property owner was unable to read, and the two men were unable to speak the same language. Matters were settled, however, when a group of people gathered to see what the fuss was all about. Someone read Washington’s letter aloud. At the news that Blanchard was a guest of the president, they all offered whatever assistance they could to help him into a carriage and make his way back to Philadelphia.
Although his landing did not go quite as smoothly as one might hope, at least this time he touched down while still wearing pants.