Up, up and away

animated lithograph of hot air balloon above crowd

Sophie Blanchard performing at the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, with King Louis XVIII.
Image from the Scrapbook of early aeronautica.

Sophie Blanchard was the first professional female aeronaut (traveler in a hot-air balloon, airship or other flying craft) in history. Born March 25, 1778, near La Rochelle, France, Sophie was initiated into ballooning by her husband Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard, who was a pioneer in ballooning. He and his co-aeronaut Dr. John Jeffries were the first to cross the English Channel by balloon in 1785.

Blanchard first took to the sky in 1804 with Jean-Pierre and was immediately fixated with ballooning. Normally shy and nervous, Blanchard became a completely different person in the air where she was transformed into an almost reckless daredevil.

In 1805, Blanchard took her first solo flight and became the first woman to pilot a balloon. Her ballooning career was a mixture of sensational entertainer, aeronautic experimenter, pioneer, and fixture of the royal court.

Blanchard liked aerial stunts and pyrotechnics; during nighttime flights, she shot fireworks from pyrotechnic rigs and dropped fireworks from parachutes. Blanchard’s experiments and pioneering aeronautics included long-distance and high-altitude flights and parachuting.

Blanchard’s love of ballooning was also her undoing. She died on July 6, 1819, when her hydrogen balloon caught fire and she became entangled in the balloon’s netting. Despite her tragic ending, Sophie Blanchard has taken her place in aeronautic history.

Find out more about the early history of aeronautics and its impact on the 19th-century imagination at the Smithsonian Libraries’ exhibition website “Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780-1910.”

Posted: 5 July 2016
About the Author:

Marilyn is an editor in the Smithsonian’s central Office of Public Affairs; she has been at the Smithsonian since 2008. When not editing, she aspires to be Vianne Rocher in "Chocolat" and embraces all things "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."