It was an incredible sight witnessed by hundreds on a summer evening 200 years ago: Peter Carnes, Bladensburg innkeeper, lawyer and adventurer, was borne aloft in a homemade hot-air balloon, the first of its kind in this country.
The spectators in the Philadelphia commons watched in awe as the 200-pound man rose about 20 feet. But a shift of wind pushed his ingenious machine into a wall, breaking the chains and dropping him to the ground.
Many in the crowd had not seen Carnes fall, and so were horrified when the balloon, which had continued to climb more than a mile, caught fire. They assumed that the pieces of platform and furnace that dropped from the sky were Carnes' body. Years later, poems were still being written immortalizing the "martyr" Peter Carnes.
As it turned out, Carnes landed unhurt in a prison yard. Nevertheless, he chose to end his ballooning career with that spectacular July 1784 episode.
It was 200 years ago today that Carnes first flew a tethered, unmanned balloon 70 feet over what is now a Bladensburg flood plain.
He was the first American to build a full-scale hot-air balloon, and yesterday he was remembered as the father of American ballooning at a "Festival of Flight" in Bladensburg, near the field where his first balloon flew. Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch giant balloons float overhead.
Among the guests was Atlanta resident Peter Carnes, distant great-nephew of the balloonist, who admits to no knowledge of ballooning or his great-uncle's achievement. "For the life of me, I did not know he was involved in balloon racing until the festival committee called," said Carnes.
The 18th century Carnes also had no interest or knowledge of ballooning until he read newspaper accounts of the first flights in France in 1783. He had never been to France and he had never seen a balloon, according to Tom Crouch, curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum and author of a book on ballooning. But Carnes fashioned his own balloon, 35 feet in diameter, based on sketchy newspaper stories.
"He was indeed a very adventurous man," said Crouch. "It was considered a great scientific achievement. It is difficult to realize what an achievement flying that balloon really was. His flight was a demonstration of the fact that while this nation was young, it was a nation with great hope for the future," he said.
Carnes became known as "the noble American who could meet the European philosophers above the clouds," according to Crouch.
One week after Carnes flew his unmanned balloon over Bladensburg, he took his balloon to Baltimore, where 13-year-old Edward Warren volunteered to ride in the tethered craft. The boy became the first American to ascend in a hot-air balloon, an honor Carnes would have had himself if he had not been such a large man, Crouch said.
The event caused a stir in Baltimore. A company clerk wrote in his ledger that day that almost all stores closed. "An air balloon was raised and people were balloon mad," he wrote.
Carnes, who ran the Indian Queen Tavern in Bladensburg, had built the balloon as a money-making venture, planning to charge spectators to watch the show. But he also had lofty notions about the exciting uses for this invention, according to Crouch.
"They thought that balloons could be used for everything under the sun," Crouch said. "American doctors thought they could cure patients by sending them up in thin air."