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By David Rooney on

Up, up and away!

David Rooney, Keeper of Technology and Engineering, celebrates the anniversary of the first Channel crossing in a balloon.

Back in July 2009, I kicked off this blog with a post about Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the English Channel a century earlier. Blériot’s journey is rightly considered a momentous event in aviation history, but it wasn’t the first flight across. That happened over 125 years before Blériot’s flight in this, the first week of January.

Whilst Blériot had a powered, heavier-than-air craft, on 7 January 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries were the first people to cross the Channel in a balloon.

This is a wonderful pair of oil paintings by E. W. Cocks painted in about 1840. The first shows the balloon leaving Dover, whilst the second depicts the triumphant arrival in Calais.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel.

If you look closely you can make out a paddle-steamer in the background of each picture. A bit of artistic licence, there. Whilst the first steamboat trials were indeed being carried out in the 1770s and 1780s, practical paddle-steamer services weren’t launched until the early nineteenth century.

Still, what a remarkable experience it must have been for the two men. The journey from England to France took about four-and-a-half hours and came just over a year after Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated the world’s first balloon flight in 1783.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel.

Ballooning became quite a craze and spawned a whole new market in ballooniana – snuff boxes, fans, bowls and umbrella tops. More about our fine collection of these trinkets another time…