Friday, July 15, 2016

Of Railways and Balloons

As we prepare for our program next week on Benjamin Franklin’s kite, we have been looking through the collection for Franklin-related items. One of the things we found, a facsimile of a letter written by Franklin on balloons, is interesting both for its subject matter and for the story behind the document’s owner. William K. Bixby printed 250 copies “for his friends,” presenting the letter (nicely bound along with a transcription) to Alice and William Miner as a New Year’s gift in 1924. Like William Miner, Bixby was a railroad man, though by this time he had retired to devote himself completely to collecting and philanthropy. There are a lot of similarities between the two Williams, as a matter of fact, and it’s not surprising that they became friends.

Cover (featuring a design adapted from an 18th c. toile de jouy) and title page

William Keeney Bixby was born in 1857 in Michigan. At the age of 16, he left home to work as a railway baggage handler in Texas. Here he caught the eye of H.M. Hoxie, president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, who eventually convinced W.K. to come work with him in St. Louis. In 1883 he made what would turn out to be a wise decision, switching from railway management to railroad car manufacturing; by 1887 he was the vice president and general manager of Missouri Car and Foundry. In 1899, he led the consolidation of eighteen railway supply companies into the American Car and Foundry Company, of which he was the president. The St. Louis-based company controlled all aspects of railroad car production, from ore deposits and timber tracts to the car-building shops.

W.K. Bixby (1857-1931)
After just six years as president, at the age of 48, W.K. Bixby retired from business and turned his attention to collecting art, rare books, and manuscripts. He was a great admirer of Robert Burns, and is said to have developed such expertise that he could identify a forged Burns document from a single letter. Bixby also endowed institutions such as the St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University, and served as president of the Missouri Historical Society. Bixby produced several dozen books of facsimiles of manuscripts from his collection, which he had printed in small editions and gave to friends and fellow collectors. The reproductions themselves are collectors’ editions, with great attention being paid to illustrations, covers, and paper—for Benjamin Franklin on Balloons, Bixby used paper made by the same company that provided the paper used to make the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon!

Charles and Robert’s first (unmanned) balloon,
which was destroyed by the residents of Gonesse
The letter itself is one written on January 16, 1784 by Benjamin Franklin, who was then United States Ambassador to France, to his friend and fellow scientist Jan Ingenhousz. Ingenhousz had evidently asked Franklin for information about the balloons that had recently been launched in Paris, with the idea that he might try to construct one himself. Franklin sent him this information along with some advice not to promote a ballon launch unless he was really sure it would work! As Franklin said, “It is a serious thing to draw out from their Affairs all the Inhabitants of a great City & its Environs, and a Disappointment makes them angry.” A would-be balloonist at Bordeaux had learned this the hard way, when the crowd tore down his house when he failed to deliver the promised spectacle.

The “Charlière” rising above the Tuileries
Franklin himself had recently attended two historic ballooning events. First, on August 27, 1783, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched the first hydrogen balloon (which ultimately crashed outside Paris and was destroyed by alarmed villagers). Then, on December 1, Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first manned hydrogen balloon flight. Charles and Robert launched their balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries and ascended to about 1800 feet and traveled about 22 miles in two hours. Charles then made a second ascent to nearly 10,000 feet, but had to return to earth when he began feeling the effects of altitude. It is said that some 400,000 spectators witnessed the launch, 100 of whom had paid a crown each to help pay for the balloon’s construction and had access to a special enclosure where they got a close-up view of the takeoff. Franklin was part of this group, and presumably he and his fellow spectators felt that they got their money’s worth!

The second Montgolfier balloon
This launch came only ten days after the first manned hot-air balloon flight, during which Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier piloted a balloon designed by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Thus, in January 1784, Europe seemed to be poised on the brink of a new era, when the possibility of flight would reshape geopolitics. As Franklin said to Ingenhousz, “Five Thousand Balloons capable of raising two Men each, would not cost more than Five Ships of the Line: And where is the Prince who can afford to cover his Country with Troops for its Defense, as that Ten Thousand Men descending from the Clouds, might not in many Places do an infinite deal of Mischief, before a Force could be brought together to repel them?” In fact, it would be a long time before aircraft played a significant role in warfare, but Franklin was certainly correct about its far-reaching possibilities. 

If you would like to learn more about Benjamin Franklin and the world of 18th-century science, join us at the museum on Friday, July 22 at 7:00 p.m. for “Secrets of Benjamin Franklin’s Kite.” The program is free and open to children of all ages.

You can read the complete text of Franklin’s letter here.

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