Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Along the Way: John Wise, Early Balloonist



John Wise Memorial
Lancaster
I had first stumbled across the name John Wise years and years ago. The brief mention of his name in the article I was reading failed to reveal any details about his life and at the time I was working on a different project so his name got filed away and mostly forgotten about.

Recently I was reading a book about mysteries of the Great Lakes and his name reappeared. A little bit of research had brought me to Lancaster where, on the corner of North Lime and East Marion Streets, a simple plaque honoring John Wise exists. Parking along East Chestnut Street, I crossed through Musser Park and was soon standing at the plaque.

Born February 24, 1808, near the spot where the memorial stands, John was the fourth of eight children of John and Mary Weiss, who anglicized their son’s name to Wise. By the age of sixteen he was an apprentice to a cabinet maker and by his early twenties he was working as a local piano maker.

But working with wood was not his true love. After reading an article about ballooning at the age of fourteen John was interested in the subject, but it wasn’t until he turned twenty-seven that he constructed his first balloon. In May of 1835 Wise made his first ascent in a balloon in Philadelphia.

At first Wise’s interests were not commercial, but to satisfy his own interests. Wise was especially interested in what would happen if the balloon would rupture or deflate. His design allowed for the bottom half to fold into the top half, turning the balloon into a large parachute. During one ascent, John exploded his balloon, and his design worked and he successfully landed safely.

John also made design changes to use drag lines to help with stabilization and a rip panel that allowed for a controlled deflation of the balloon once it was on the ground in order to prevent dragging on the ground.

During his observations, he noted a large body of fast moving air at a high altitude. He envisioned using this body of fast moving air as a means of transporting people in the west quickly eastward. This fast moving air that Wise was observing would eventually be known as the jet stream.

Close-up of the plaque
On the Wise Memorial
On August 17, 1859 John Wise would attempt the first balloon mail for the United States postal system. On that day his balloon Jupiter lifted from Lafayette, Indiana headed towards New York City carrying a mail bag carrying 123 letters. Due to unfavorable weather (the winds were carrying him southward instead of eastward) he was forced to land at Crawfordville, Indiana. Though the trip did not go as planned, Wise had the first official airmail flight.

Just a quick note: This was not the first time mail had been transported by balloon. This was the first time that it was officially recognized by the Postal Service.

Wise did attempt to have his balloon to be a part of the Civil War, by making a bid to be the head of the Balloon Corps. John and his balloon would be involved in the Battle of First Manassas. He arrived late in the battle with papers instructing officers to allow him to inflate his balloon. Wise inflated the balloon, which was tied to a wagon to help control how high the balloon would ascend and what direction the balloon would go. When the wagon moved forward, the balloon became entangled in trees ending Wise’s attempts at the becoming the head of the Balloon Corps and his involvement in the Civil War.


On September 28, 1879 John Wise made his final ascent with George Burr as his passenger. The two of them were last seen over Carlinville, Illinois headed over Lake Michigan. George’s body was later recovered floating in Lake Michigan, but neither Wise nor his balloon was ever found.

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