Switzerland & Midwest Connections: Jean & Jeannette Piccard — Looking to the Heavens

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Never has there been a more original pair of brothers in science than the Piccard twins. Both inspired famous fictional characters (Auguste for Professor Calculus from Hergé’s Tintin and Jean for the famous Star Trek Captain Picard). Both had a keen sense of humor as evidenced by a visit to a barbershop. The brothers at the time grew their hair long and Jean told the barber that his hair grew back incredibly fast. The barber assured him if he was not happy he would cut it again for free. The next day Jean’s identical twin brother August showed up with his long hair to the bewilderment of the barber. Jean gained fame above all for his balloon flights, which he first undertook as early as 1913 with Auguste. Later he flew with his wife Jeannette, a pioneering balloon pilot herself.

Famous Balloonist and Star Trek Captain Inspiration

Jean-Felix Piccard, called Jean, was born in Basel in 1884. His father Jules Piccard, was professor of chemistry at the University of Basel. Jean entered the University of Basel in 1902 and then transferred to the ETH in Zurich, where he studied chemistry. He later taught as a professor in Munich, Lausanne and at the University of Chicago. He became a U.S. citizen in 1931 and from 1936 until his retirement in 1952, served as a professor at the University of Minnesota. Jean gained great fame above all for his balloon flights, which took him as far as the stratosphere and were he often studied cosmic rays. Later, he succeeded in developing windows for balloon cabins that were resistant to icing. The first special balloons to enable flights at altitudes of over 30,000 meters, can also be traced back to Piccard’s work. He was also instrumental in designing polyethylene high altitude balloons, which allowed manned flights in excess of 100,000 feet. Jean Piccard had planned a stratosphere attempt with a balloon called the Century of Progress, at Chicago’s 1933 world’s fair. After conflicts with the fair’s executives, he resigned as in-flight scientific observer. The Gondola used in those attempts can be seen at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry named The Next Generation captain Jean-Luc Picard, he had Jean in mind, but it could as well have been Jeannette. When the two climbed into the stratosphere nearly 11 miles over Lake Erie in 1934, she was the pilot. “I didn’t go up with him, he went up with me,” she said in an interview years later. Jean Piccard died in Minneapolis in 1963 on his 79th birthday.

The First Woman to reach the Stratosphere

One of nine children, Jeannette Piccard was born in Chicago in 1895 to Emily and John Ridlon, a Northwestern University orthopedic surgeon. Also a twin like her husband, her sister Beatrice died tragically at age three from burns suffered while playing with a toy stove. Jeannette earned her master’s degree in organic chemistry in 1919 at the University of Chicago, where she met and later married Jean Piccard, then a chemistry professor there and 11 years her senior. The couple moved to Switzerland, returning to the United States in 1926, when he accepted a position at MIT. Jeannette became the first American woman to earn a balloonist’s license and the first woman to reach the stratosphere in 1934. While she would pilot the balloon, her husband would focus on scientific observations, however, the idea of a woman at the controls concerned potential sponsors. The National Geographic Society, which had sponsored similar voyages, withheld assistance, as did Goodyear and Dow Chemical, calling the flight too risky for a woman and a mother of three boys. After her husband died, Jeanette resided in Houston where she worked for NASA. Jean-Felix and Jeannette Piccard were jointly inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1998. One of their sons, Don Piccard (1926–2020), was responsible for the revival of hot air ballooning around 1960. Don’s daughter, Mary Louise Piccard, assisted him with his rides from a young age. But Jeannette was not only a Balloon pioneer. As Mary Louise recalled, her grandmother Jeannette wanted to become an Episcopalian priest as a young girl. This she accomplished in 1974 at age 79, when she became the first woman to be ordained, fulfilling an ambition she had had since she was 11 years old. Jeannette Ridlon Piccard died in Minneapolis in 1981 at the age of eighty-six.

Special thanks go to Mary Louise Piccard, the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago (www.msichicago.org) and Author David Hanna. For an interesting read on the 1933 Chicago Fair and the role of Auguste, Jean and Jeannette Piccard, see David Hanna’s Book “Broken Icarus”.

The Piccard Gondola (Image by the Author).
Jeannette and Jean Piccard (courtesy David Hanna).

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