With its splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon became the latest vehicle to continue the tradition of manned flights taking off from and landing on U.S. seas and shores. Many trace the beginning of this tradition to the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 that demonstrated the first successful airplane. But this flight, as great a milestone as it was, didn’t exist in a vacuum.
In truth, the first manned vehicle to travel through U.S. aerospace did so only a few years after this country’s founding, during the administration of our first president, George Washington. On January 9, 1793, President Washington granted a safe-passage request—which usually came from ship captains or drivers of horses and carriages for permission to pass through secure areas without interference from the military—to the pilot of a vehicle never seen before on the American continent.
The pilot was visiting Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and the vehicle was a hot-air balloon, which had been invented in France a decade earlier and could transport human beings through the air at very limited distances without any built-in mechanism for steering. Blanchard and others had gone up for a series of short flights in France after the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon traveled for five miles and 35 minutes on the outskirts of Paris in 1783. Those who saw and heard about the flights were fascinated, yet few grasped the implications for the future. Washington happened to be one of those few.
Washington is often not seen as intelligent as other Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams or as creative as those like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Yet as I argue in my new book, George Washington, Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World, Washington’s informal self-education enabled him to see both the world’s limits and its possibilities. And, amazingly, Washington grasped the implication of manned flight almost immediately after the first French balloon launch. Writing to French military leader Louis Lebègue Duportail in 1784, Washington made this prediction: “The tales related of them are marvelous, and lead us to expect that our friends at Paris, in a little time, will come flying thro’ the air, instead of ploughing the ocean to get to America.”
In 1793, of course, Blanchard did not come to America from France by “flying thro’ the air.” But Washington was more than happy to have him flying through the aerospace of the new nation. On that day in 1793, not only did Washington allow Blanchard to fly, he gave the visitor a hearty American welcome. Cannon fire, at regular intervals, awoke the capital city of Philadelphia on the same day Washington signed the letter of safe passage. At 10 a.m., in front of gathered crowds that included presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, Washington gave Blanchard his pass and made a short speech praising the man he called “the bold aeronaut.”
After waving the flags of the United States and France to the crowd watching from the street and the windows of nearby buildings, Blanchard took off and covered 15 miles in a then unheard-of 46 minutes. He returned to Philadelphia by conventional travel later that evening to visit Washington and told him all about the day’s journey.
As president and as a prominent private citizen, Washington championed American inventors and innovators and welcomed those—such as Blanchard—from foreign lands. In his first address to Congress on January 8, 1790, Washington called for the “introductions of new and useful inventions from abroad” and “encouragement . . . of skill and genius in producing them at home.” Congress passed the Patent Act later that year for the purpose of (in the Constitution’s words) “securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
One of the first patents approved during Washington’s administration went to James Rumsey and John Fitch for their co-invention of the steamboat, which would revolutionize transportation when it was commercialized by Robert Fulton some 15 years later. Washington first met Rumsey in 1784, one year after Washington retired as general after leading the Continental Army to victory over Great Britain. As an entrepreneur engaged in trade, as well as a citizen concerned about the new nation’s economy, Washington turned his focus from war to creating faster modes of transportation for people and goods. After seeing fellow Virginian Rumsey demonstrate his model mechanical boat, Washington wrote Rumsey a letter of endorsement. At a time when many inventors were dismissed as crackpots, Washington’s endorsement helped Rumsey gain backing and various state patents (before the U.S. Patent Office was created) for his invention.
Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey writes that by the mid-nineteenth century in the U.S. and much of Europe, the inventor had become “an acknowledged benefactor of the world.” This in turn started a virtuous cycle in which more talented people would chase glory and riches in their quest to invent the next big thing. McCloskey notes that the lionization of the inventor began in the United States before it spread to Great Britain and much of Europe: “The Americans, then the British, and then many other people for the first time on a large scale, such as the Swedes late in the nineteenth century, looked with favor on the market economy, and even on the creative destruction coming from its profitably alert innovations.”
So how did America break from history and show the world how to love inventors and innovators? From Blanchard and Rumsey to Bob and Doug and Elon Musk, the die was cast with both the policies and example set by George Washington.
John Berlau is senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of the new book George Washington, Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World. Joshua Rutzick, Research Associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, contributed to this article.