America’s First Aeronaut: Dr. John Jeffries

In 1785, writes Mary Beth Norton, a Loyalist physician from Boston made the first aerial flight across the English Channel.

On November 25th, 1783, a huge crowd gathered at the Artillery Grounds in London to watch the ascension of an ‘air balloon’. Among those present was Dr. John Jeffries, an American Loyalist refugee who had been living in London for several years.

Like the other spectators, he was awed by the sight. With amazement Jeffries watched the slowly rising balloon until it looked ‘like a black speck’, and had risen ‘almost as high as the eye could discern’. Throughout Europe that autumn other crowds attended similar ascensions.

The first successful unmanned balloon flight, planned and executed by the Montgolfier brothers, had taken place in France just six short months before on June 4th. Only four days prior to the London ascension that Jeffries attended, the French balloonist François Pilâtre de Rozier had drifted over Paris in the first free flight of a manned balloon. By the beginning of the year 1784, all Europe was balloon-mad.

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