John Wise: Balloonist

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John Wise Memorial, Lancaster

I never would have thought that reading a book about the mysteries of the Great Lakes would bring me to the center of Lancaster.  Hidden within the book was a mention of the disappearance of John Wise. The mention was barely a paragraph, but it caught my attention and a search revealed he was a Pennsylvania native – I was surprised to discover a monument stood in Lancaster to remember John’s life and contributions.

I managed to pick a hot, humid day to explore Lancaster. Parking along East Chestnut Street next to Musser Park, Zech and I were greeted with the afternoon heat as we got out of the vehicle. A short walk later, we were standing in front of the monument for John Wise, located at the corner of North Lime and East Marion Streets.

John is known as the “Father of American Ballooning,” although he has been forgotten by most. 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 John’s true love. Since reading an article about ballooning at the age of fourteen John was interested in the subject and built his first fire balloon that year. The launch was successful, but the end results were devastating as the small balloon fell onto a house roof in the center of Lancaster and set the house on fire.

In 1835, Wise constructed his first balloon, out of materials he had on hand and on May 2, 1835, at the age of twenty-seven, Wise made his first ascent in a balloon in Philadelphia. While this venture went without issue, his next couple of flights faced serious issues.

On July 4 of the same year he had his second ascent, this time in Lebanon County. In an attempt to open the valve at the top of the balloon, he lost control, causing the balloon to burst. Despite the damage to the balloon, he managed to safely descend. He attempted another ascent in Lancaster on October 1, 1835, but was thrown from the balloon, which continued to ascend alone.

The following May he ascended again from Lancaster and landed in Harford County, Maryland. He made the journey of seventy-five miles safely, but as he was emptying the car, there was an explosion which severely burned him. On September 18, 1837, he once again ascended from Philadelphia, this time landing in the Delaware River, where he had to be rescued.

In May 1842, Wise made his most significant discovery. During his observations, Wise had noted a large body of fast-moving air at a high altitude moving in a west to east direction. After an ascent near Bellefonte, Wise was convinced this air current could be used to transport people across the country and eventually across the Atlantic Ocean, but this would never occur during his lifetime.

On August 17, 1859 John Wise would attempt the first balloon mail for the United States Post Office. On that day his balloon Jupiter lifted from Lafayette, Indiana, headed towards New York City carrying a mail bag filled with 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 made the first official airmail flight. 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 Post Office.

Wise made a bid to be the head of the Balloon Corps at the start of the American Civil War and he 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, rather than Thaddeus Lowe, who was already present and had his balloon ready to ascend. 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, Wise’s balloon became entangled in trees ending his attempt of becoming the head of the Balloon Corps. This failure ended Wise’s involvement in the American Civil War.

On September 28, 1879 John Wise made his final ascent in his balloon Pathfinder, with George Burr as his passenger. The two of them were last seen over Carlinville, Illinois – roughly thirty-five miles from Chicago – headed northeast over Lake Michigan. George’s body was later recovered floating in Lake Michigan, but neither Wise nor his balloon were recovered.

During the forty-four years of experimenting, John Wise made 446 free ascents for scientific exploration. Wise made numerous discoveries and improvements in regards to hot air ballooning. He wanted to understand what would happen if the balloon would rupture or deflate and designed his balloon so, in case of rupture, the bottom half would fold into the top half, turning the balloon into a large parachute. John also made design changes such as using 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.

Zech and I finished paying our respects to the man whose experimenting changed hot air ballooning before returning to the vehicle to escape the heat and humidity. While his disappearance may never be resolved, his discoveries and improvements are still used to this day by hot-air balloonists around the world.

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