Likely inspired by watching birds effortlessly navigate the skies above, dreams of flight have obsessed humans from the beginning of time. The Greek myth of Icarus and Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine designs are two well-known examples of early human dreams of flight. However, none of them were actually realized until 1783 when two French brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montfolfier, invented the hot air balloon, or globe aérostatique.
After successful trials with a duck, a rooster, and a sheep as aeronauts, Jacques-Étienne became the first human to ascend from earth on October 15th, 1783 in a tethered balloon. Less than a month later, the first human free-flight took place on November 21st. Thousands of mesmerized onlookers witnessed the event, including Louis XVI. Another few weeks later, on December 1st, the first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched—and witnessed by nearly half a million spectators, including Benjamin Franklin. The first manned balloon flight in America was not until 1792, when Jean Pierre Blanchard, with his small dog, ascended in free flight from the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia—observed by many who paid the exorbitant price of a $5 ticket, including legendary characters President George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Now freed from the constraints of gravity, inventors embraced the new seemingly-endless frontier of human flight. The first sky voyagers were the adventurers who navigated flight from balloons: the age of the aeronaut was born. Controlled navigation was the next hurdle to overcome. Steady advancements in designs over the next few decades improved lift, propulsion, and descent speed. Daring aeronauts continued to push the boundaries of possibility over the next century, many losing their lives in the process.
A record-setting trip in 1836 from London to Germany by Monck Mason, a master of “aerostation” or the operation of hot-air balloons, renewed public interest in the waning novelty of balloon flight by then, although children’s books and popular dime novels published throughout the 1800s featured characters traveling the world in fantastic flying machines, mostly searching for treasure. Both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells famously imagined futures in flight, some of which were amazingly prophetic.
By the late 1800s, patents that addressed “means and apparatus for propelling and guiding balloons” included everything from complicated contraptions, bodysuits, and harnesses to manually-pedaled propellers. Our Flight Dreams patent design, inspired by Reuben Jasper Spalding’s “flying machine” patent of 1889, is one from this era. His patent “relates to a machine for navigating the air, and has, for its object to provide a simple, comparatively inexpensive, easily-operative, and efficient apparatus of this character.” It even references real feathers on the wings. A person in his flying machine “is suspended [from a balloon] by connections to the jacket and to straps or bands encircling his legs.” Whether it was ever realized is anyone’s guess, but we think it perfectly captures a lovely bygone era rich in Flight Dreams.