On May 7, 1801, J.S. Watson, a student at William and Mary, wrote a letter detailing attempts of flying hot air balloons on the Court House Green. The third balloon, decorated with sixteen stars, one for each of the existing states, and fueled with spirits of wine, was successful. Watson wrote, “I never saw so great and so universal delight as it gave to the spectators.” This is the earliest recorded evidence of aeronautics in the commonwealth.
In November of 1783, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first manned hot air balloon flight in France. It was a thirty minute flight that went over 8,000 feet into the air. This was an achievement that added to their prestige with their previous exploits, which explains why the French word for hot air balloon is la montgolfiere (Haven 2006, 76).
Another man who made his name with the use of the hot air balloon was Joseph Shelton Watson in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was born in 1780 and died at the age of 25 in September of 1805. A collection of his letters had been compiled from his time at the College of William and Mary between 1798 and 1801. In his letter that is dated April 1, 1801, he tells his brother David about his construction of a hot air balloon. “I have been engaged in for several evenings in the construction of an Air-balloon. I’ll let you know in my next whether it succeeds” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 166).
Ballooning had been an active hobby at the college. Even prior to JS Watson’s attempts to build a balloon, Thomas Jefferson had had brought back the concept with detailed explanations after the Montgolfier’s successes in France in the 1784. The Balloon Club had been organized under a science professor on campus known as Reverend James Madison. in the Spring of 1786, the club had begun to succeed in building their own hot air balloons (Crouch 1983, 99).
“Who would have supposed a few years past that… the bold aeronaut should dare to attempt excursions in so rare a Medium, and even be able to direct his course nearer to the Wind than the best Sailing Vessels. It is probable that these aerostatic machines will in time be applied to other purposes than a mere Philosoph. Experiment, tho in that respect alone they are certainly very valuable. Yet I have seen no result of observations made by them, relating to several matters for which they seem particularly adopted. Such as the rate of decrease in the density of the atmosphere at different Elevations, also the Rate in which its Temperature varies, Meteors in general, Propagations of Sounds, Descent of bodies, etc., are all proper subject of Investigation, and which no doubt will be investigated as those Machines are more perfected (The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1921).”
Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft : Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. New York: Smithsonian Institute, 1983.
Haven, Kendall. One Hundred Greatest Science Inventions of All Time. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.
“Letters of Reverend James Madison, President of the College of William and Mary, to Thomas Jefferson,” William and Mary Quarterly (April 1925).
“Letters from William and Mary College, 1798-1801.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 29, no. 2 (April, 1921): 166-169. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4243811 (accessed April 12, 2012).
“Balloon Flights,” Circling Hawk Paragliding, www.circlinghawk.com (accessed May 2, 2012).
“The Brothers De Montgolfier,” Aeronautics Learning Laboratory for Science, Technology and Research, www.allstar.fiu.edu (accessed May 2, 2012).
“The College,” The College of William and Mary, www.wm.edu (accessed May 2, 2012).
Historical Marker “First Balloon Flight in Virginia W-40,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
Department of Historic Resources link not available