Wednesday 2 April 2014

Wilhelmine Reichard, An Intrepid Lady of Aviation

Wilhelmine Reichard (née Johanne Wilhelmine Siegmundine Schmidt; Brunswick, Germany, 2nd April 1788 - Döhlen, Germany, 22nd February 1848)

Wilhelmine Reichart by Adolph Friedrich Kunike, 1820
Wilhelmine Reichard by Adolph Friedrich Kunike, 1820

If you are a regular visitor to the salon, you will know that I have told stories of intrepid balloonists before; we Georgians loved the thought of flying high above the rabble as we pushed the boundaries of travel and rising up towards the clouds was a most exiting development in transport! From my grandmother Gilflurt's tale of the Montgolfier brothers, to the first parachute descent and the story of a most adventurous lady, Jeanne Garnerin, the glorious long 18th century was full of ground-breaking aviators and today's guest is another fearless flyer.

Nicknamed Minna, the girl who would one day take to the skies was born the daughter of a Brunswick butler. An intelligent and adventurous girl, at the age of 19 she married Professor of Physics Johann Gottfried Reichard and the happy couple welcomed the first of their eight children to the world that same year. From the start the couple shared a fascination for ballooning and when they settled in 1810, they dedicated themselves to building a gas balloon in which Johann would make his maiden flight. By the end of the year Johann and Minna were making balloon ascents together and were constantly researching and working to improve their creations.

On 16 April 1811, Minna made her first solo flight. In her gas-powered balloon she rose high above Berlin, peaking at 16,000 feet before making a safe landing. More uneventful flights followed and the couple became celebrated throughout Europe for their adventurous nature and scientific observations. Though the balloonists experienced occasional crash landings when flying together, Minna was to experience a serious accident during a solo ascent though the lucky aviatrix lived to tell the tale.

As well as carrying out chemical experiments with Johann, Minna was a keen meteorologist and eventually rose higher and higher in the balloon as she conducted her observations. On one trip she rose to over 20,000 feet and was overcome by the effects of altitude, losing consciousness. The balloon split and she plummeted down to earth, surviving only because the basket became stuck in a canopy of trees. The intrepid lady was badly injured and was helped to safety by local farm workers; as a result she would not fly again for several years but Minna spent her recuperation in further research, dedicating herself to chemistry.

Despite this incident, Minna was not deterred and took to the air again, this time with the aim of raising enough money to support her husband's planned purchase of a chemical factory in Döhlen. The Reichards toured Europe and enjoyed no small measure of celebrity; they achieved her aims and retired from flight in 1820, with the hard-earned factory opening the following year. Minna now became a woman of business and with her husband ran the factory, becoming its sole manager following his death in 1844 and remaining in the post until her own death from a stroke four years later.


Antonio Grillo said...

A brave woman. A story that did not know. thanks

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure!

M Pereira and Michael Fierce said...

Thnx for posting this! Very interesting! And cool!

michael fierce

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure!

marianne said...

love to hear about the more lesser known figures of history.....quite some woman was Minna...

Catherine Curzon said...

A true pioneer!