This week, let’s look at the story of a colorful character who has the particularity of being the very first French bird-man.
REVERIES OF THE SOLITARY GLIDER
Jean-François Boyvin de Bonnetot was born in 1688 in Bacqueville-en-Caux, the place from which he took his title as a marquis. Much more than for this title, however, this General Officer, First President of the Chamber of Accounts, quickly distinguished himself for his decidedly fanciful attitude and ambitions…
He got it into his head in particular to fly over the rooftops of Paris using a system of spring-loaded wings invented by him, with a first pair attached to his arms and a second to his legs. Thus, on the 19th of March 1742, a large crowd, alerted by a rumor spread by the man himself, gathered in front of the Hôtel de Bouillon at the corner of the present-day Quai Voltaire and the Rue des Saints-Pères. Among this crowd, there were few who rated the chances of this oddball who appeared on the roof, dressed in a dark swimsuit and his harnessing, flanked by his valet in the same attire. Driven by a sudden excess of altruism, or by a sudden instinct for self-preservation, he then offered his handyman the chance to go first… an offer which was politely but firmly declined, the valet arguing that a servant must always go after his master! It was therefore after a lengthy period of prevarication that he finally jumped into the void. He began by falling quickly and dangerously towards the ground… before a light wind saved his life and caused him to glide over a distance of 300 meters above the Seine amid the cheers of the incredulous crowd. Cheers which quickly turned into great bursts of laughter when, just as he was about to land triumphantly on the opposite bank, a gust of wind carried him over the houses before suddenly dropping, causing the unfortunate marquis to fall with it. In his misfortune, he was nevertheless lucky enough to land on a passing washerwoman’s barge and got away with a broken arm - or leg.
Although his glory had taken a knock, the episode was nevertheless to go down in literary history because the witnesses to this unlikely scene included a certain Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who addressed the theme of the bird-man in an essay entitled The New Daedalus, written the same year. The author of The Reveries of the Solitary Walker was moreover not the only great writer to evoke the divine marquis. He also featured in Jules Verne’s novel Robur the Conqueror. And when Saint-Simon also devoted a few lines to him in his Memoirs, it was in reference to his separation from his wife who was leaving him… due to his extravagances.
THE MARQUIS GOES DOWN IN FLAMES
It is indeed an understatement to say that this man - who went around dressed in a monk’s habit adorned with genuine diamond buttons but so coarse that the brigands of the time, thinking the diamonds were false, did not consider robbing him for a second – was an eccentric. His contemporaries had no shortage of tales about him, each more outlandish than the last.
To test his theory that it is possible to live without eating, he ordered that the food given to his horses be progressively reduced. When it was announced to him after three days that the unfortunate animals had died, he declared tersely: “that’s a shame, they’d almost got used to it!”
Perhaps struck with remorse, he then convinced himself that horses could be civilized. Thus, when one of them had the misfortune to kick his groom, he had it hanged at the doorway of the stable, where he ordered it to be left on display to serve as an example to its fellows! And when a noblewoman he knew came to complain about the sickening smell given off by the corpse, the ineffable oaf’s response was: “Tell Madam President that she has been infecting my hotel for twelve years, and I will only have my horse removed when it has been determined by experts that it stinks as much as her…”. In the end the police had to be called to remove the horse’s body.
This eccentricity, combined with his miserliness, ended up costing him his life. Living as a recluse in a small apartment in his magnificent hotel on the banks of the Seine, he dug holes in the walls, hid his gold in them and covered up the holes. One evening, however, when he had gone to the Opera after carefully locking up with the key he always carried with him, he was informed that a fire had just broken out. Instead of rushing back, he waited until the end of the show before going home… and bolting the door behind him! He refused to yield to the pleas of his son, who eventually had the door broken down and found his father armed with a pistol which he threatened to use if anyone approached. At was at this point that the floor engulfed the belligerent marquis… and the plans of his famous wings with him!
"Can a man be less wise than a bird?" – Confucius
OTHER EVENTS WHICH HAPPENED THIS WEEK:
- 14 March (1995): Norman E. Thagard is the first American to participate in a Russian orbital flight
- 14 March (2002): the Microsoft video game console Xbox comes out in Europe
- 15 March (1818): first gas street lighting tests in Paris
- 15 March (1906): launch of the British automobile brand Rolls-Royce
- 15 March (1982): Fuji launches the first disposable camera
- 16 March (1966): first space docking in history performed by Neil Armstrong and David Scott
- 17 March (1910): the French aviator Raymonde de Laroche becomes the first woman to receive a pilot’s license
- 18 March (1931): the American inventor Jacob Schick markets the first electric razor usable with one hand
- 18 March (1965): the Russian cosmonaut Alexis Leonov becomes the first man to walk in space
- 19 March (1742): despite a broken leg, the Marquis of Bacqueville becomes the first bird-man by flying over the banks of the Seine with wings attached to his arms and legs
-19 March (1950): signing of the Stockholm Appeal against the atomic bomb
- 20 March (1727): death in London of Isaac Newton, discoverer of gravity