Feb 052015

André-Jacques and Jeanne Geneviève Garnerin (Drawing by Christoph Haller von Hallerstein, c. 1803) Public domain

[Note: A slightly different version of this post first appeared quite a few years ago when I was actively blogging at my first site, Dictatorship of the Air (no longer active – though still preserved on the Intertubes). From time to time I’ll be re-posting other “leftovers” relevant to the History of Flight Culture here. Enjoy.]

In the years that surrounded the turn of the nineteenth century, aeronauts (led above all by the French) toured the European Continent, hosting public displays of their daring for those wishing to observe the new science of ballooning. Of all the balloonists practicing the craft, perhaps none was more well-known than André-Jacques Garnerin.

During the fall of 1803, and again in the spring of 1804, Garnerin, accompanied by his young wife, former student, and fellow aeronaut, Jeanne Geneviève, organized a series of paid demonstrations of aerial prowess for the inhabitants of St. Petersburg and Moscow. The public spectacles undertaken by the Garnerins in Russia included both unrestricted flights as well as parachute jumps from tethered balloons, (the latter feats having previously earned Garnerin and his wife renown across the Continent). According to contemporary accounts published in the newspaper Moscow Register (Московския ведомости), the Garnerins’ aerial displays were an immensely popular attraction that contributed greatly to the “aero-mania” that swept Russian high society in the century’s first decade. They also resulted in a significant, though little known, historical “first:” the first balloon flight by a Russian woman. [click here for illustrations]

The flight occurred on 8 May 1804. The details of the incident, as recorded in the 1807 Moscow publication Canvas of the World’s Miraculous Events (Картина чудных произшествий в мире), indicate that the untethered ascension was anything but routine as “a terrible storm, followed by large amounts of rain and repeated thunder preceded the scheduled balloon flight by half an hour.”

Despite the inclement weather, Mme. Garnerin and a Russian woman (whose name, alas, was not recorded by observers) ascended into the heavens. Following a flight of approximately forty-five minutes, during which they rose to just over 6,200 feet in the air, the pair returned to Earth some thirteen miles from their point of launch in Moscow. Their landing was undertaken “not without difficulty and danger” as gusting winds continuously buffeted the craft during its descent. Repeatedly, the balloon’s gondola struck the earth only to be launched anew into the air by the tumultuous currents. Finally, the two women were able to toss the aerostat’s anchor overboard and, with the aid of some locals who had rushed to the scene, secure the craft.

The fortitude demonstrated by the two women led the account’s chronicler to conclude that:

“Aeronautics has provided us with a new example demonstrating that women are occasionally even more fearless than men for, to be certain, few of the latter would have been so courageous as to maintain their composure in the face of such thunder and furious heavens.”