John Wise (balloonist)
John Wise was a pioneer in the field of ballooning
Balloon (aircraft)
A balloon is a type of aircraft that remains aloft due to its buoyancy. A balloon travels by moving with the wind. It is distinct from an airship, which is a buoyant aircraft that can be propelled through the air in a controlled manner....

. He made over 400 flights during his lifetime and was responsible for several innovations in balloon design. Among the things Wise is famous for was when his balloon, The Jupiter carried 123 letters and made the first official airmail delivery run for the US Post Office in 1859.

Early career

John Wise was born on 24 February 1808 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster is a city in the south-central part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is the county seat of Lancaster County and one of the older inland cities in the United States, . With a population of 59,322, it ranks eighth in population among Pennsylvania's cities...

, United States, to William and Mary Trey Weiss who anglicized his surname to Wise . He was the fourth of eight children. He worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker from the time he was 16 and after the age of 21 he briefly became a piano maker thereafter. He had been interested in ballooning since reading an article in the newspaper when he was 14, and in 1835, at the age of 27, he decided to construct his own balloon.

Wise made his first ascent in Philadelphia on 2 May 1835. As the construction had been self-financed the materials of his home-made balloon were not of the highest quality. He used muslin
Muslin |sewing patterns]], such as for clothing, curtains, or upholstery. Because air moves easily through muslin, muslin clothing is suitable for hot, dry climates.- Etymology and history :...

 sheet coated with a mixture of birdlime
Birdlime is an adhesive substance used in trapping birds. It is spread on a branch or twig, upon which a bird may land and be caught. Its use is illegal in many jurisdictions....

 suspended in linseed oil
Linseed oil
Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil, is a clear to yellowish oil obtained from the dried ripe seeds of the flax plant . The oil is obtained by cold pressing, sometimes followed by solvent extraction...

 to make the sheet impermeable. Unlike most balloonists of the day, Wise was not ballooning as a commercial venture, but rather for his own interest and scientific curiosity. The ascent was short and uneventful.

He took a second flight in Lebanon County
Lebanon County, Pennsylvania
As of the census of 2000, there were 120,327 people and 32,771 families residing in the county. The population density was 332 people per square mile . There were 49,320 housing units at an average density of 136 per square mile...

 on Independence Day
Independence Day (United States)
Independence Day, commonly known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain...

 1835. He attempted to open the valve on the top of the balloon, but lost control, and it burst, compelling him to descend. On 1 October 1835, he attempted an ascension from Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster is a city in the south-central part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is the county seat of Lancaster County and one of the older inland cities in the United States, . With a population of 59,322, it ranks eighth in population among Pennsylvania's cities...

, but was thrown from the car and became unconscious while the balloon ascended alone. On 7 May 1836, he ascended again from Lancaster, and landed in Harford County, Maryland
Harford County, Maryland
Harford County is a county in the U.S. state of Maryland. In 2010, its population was 244,826. Its county seat is Bel Air. Harford County forms part of the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area.-History:...

, about 75 miles distant. While he was emptying the car of its cargo an explosion of the gas occurred and burned him severely.

He made a voyage from Philadelphia on 18 September 1837, alighting in Delaware River
Delaware River
The Delaware River is a major river on the Atlantic coast of the United States.A Dutch expedition led by Henry Hudson in 1609 first mapped the river. The river was christened the South River in the New Netherland colony that followed, in contrast to the North River, as the Hudson River was then...

, where he was rescued. On this trip he set loose two parachute
A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag, or in the case of ram-air parachutes, aerodynamic lift. Parachutes are usually made out of light, strong cloth, originally silk, now most commonly nylon...

s for the purpose of demonstrating the superiority of the inverted parachute. In October, 1837, he ascended again from Philadelphia, and alighted in New Jersey, 40 miles from his starting-point.

In his early flights in Pennsylvania, he conducted various experiments on atmospheric pressure
Atmospheric pressure
Atmospheric pressure is the force per unit area exerted into a surface by the weight of air above that surface in the atmosphere of Earth . In most circumstances atmospheric pressure is closely approximated by the hydrostatic pressure caused by the weight of air above the measurement point...

, pneumatics
Pneumatics is a branch of technology, which deals with the study and application of use of pressurized gas to effect mechanical motion.Pneumatic systems are extensively used in industry, where factories are commonly plumbed with compressed air or compressed inert gases...

 and hydrostatics
Fluid statics
Fluid statics is the science of fluids at rest, and is a sub-field within fluid mechanics. The term usually refers to the mathematical treatment of the subject. It embraces the study of the conditions under which fluids are at rest in stable equilibrium...

, and while his primary interest remained scientific, he joined the ranks of commercial balloonists performing at shows and county fair
A fair or fayre is a gathering of people to display or trade produce or other goods, to parade or display animals and often to enjoy associated carnival or funfair entertainment. It is normally of the essence of a fair that it is temporary; some last only an afternoon while others may ten weeks. ...


Projects and innovations

In 1838 he developed a balloon that if ruptured or deflated when aloft would collapse to form a parachute (the bottom half would fold upwards into the top half to form the classic parachute shape) which would allow the occupants of the basket to descend without injury or loss of life. Although the idea was not original, Wise was the first to build a working version and the first to demonstrate its use. On a flight from Easton, Pennsylvania
Easton, Pennsylvania
Easton is a city in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 26,800 as of the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Northampton County....

, on 11 August 1838, in bad weather, the design was put to an impromptu test when Wise's balloon was punctured at 13,000 feet. In less than ten seconds all the gas had escaped. The balloon descended rapidly with an oscillating motion, and, on reaching the earth, rebounded, throwing Wise ten feet from the car. Wise survived without injury. He later advertised that on 1 October 1838 he would ascend and in the air would convert his balloon into a parachute, which feat he successfully accomplished.

After the death of Robert Cocking
Robert Cocking
Robert Cocking was the developer of an early unsuccessful parachute design and the first person to be killed in a parachuting accident.-Parachute design:...

 in the first modern parachuting accident, questions were raised over which of the two competing parachute designs was superior: the cone-shaped parachute proposed by Sir George Cayley and used by Cocking, or the umbrella-shaped design used by André-Jacques Garnerin
André-Jacques Garnerin
André-Jacques Garnerin was the inventor of the frameless parachute. He was born in Paris.His early experiments were based on umbrella-shaped devices...

 in his successful jump of 1797. Wise conducted numerous experiments comparing the two designs and found that Cayley's design always made a more stable descent. Cocking's failure was put down to poor calculations and substandard construction. (The oscillation problem inherent in the Garnerin parachute was later solved by the introduction of a vent in the top of the canopy).

Among Wise's other innovations was the use of draglines to stabilize altitude and the rip panel for controlled deflation on landing. Prior to Wise's use of the rip panel, balloons would drag along the ground when landing and had to be secured by anchors and lines. Balloonists wishing to deflate their balloons would climb out of their baskets onto the netting surrounding the balloon, and having scaled to the top of the balloon would open the valve to allow the gas to escape. The weight of the balloonist would cause the balloon to collapse inwards and there had been a number of accidents where the balloonists had been killed after becoming entangled in the rigging. Wise also recognised that the heat from the sun played a valuable role in warming the gas in the balloon, and built a black balloon to utilize the effects. He was the first to observe the jet stream
Jet stream
Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow air currents found in the atmospheres of some planets, including Earth. The main jet streams are located near the tropopause, the transition between the troposphere and the stratosphere . The major jet streams on Earth are westerly winds...

, noting there was a "great river of air which always blows from west to east". On 17 August 1859 he made the first flight of local airmail
Airmail is mail that is transported by aircraft. It typically arrives more quickly than surface mail, and usually costs more to send...

 in the U.S. from Lafayette
Lafayette, Indiana
Lafayette is a city in and the county seat of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, United States, northwest of Indianapolis. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 67,140. West Lafayette, on the other side of the Wabash River, is home to Purdue University, which has a large impact on...

, Indiana
Indiana is a US state, admitted to the United States as the 19th on December 11, 1816. It is located in the Midwestern United States and Great Lakes Region. With 6,483,802 residents, the state is ranked 15th in population and 16th in population density. Indiana is ranked 38th in land area and is...

 to Crawfordsville, Indiana
Crawfordsville, Indiana
Crawfordsville is a city in Union Township, Montgomery County, Indiana, United States. As of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 15,915. The city is the county seat of Montgomery County...

 in a Balloon named The Jupiter carrying 123 letters and 23 circulars of which one cover
Cover (philately)
In philately, the term cover pertains to the outside of an envelope or package with an address, typically with postage stamps that have been cancelled and is a term generally used among stamp and postal history collectors. The term does not include the contents of the letter or package, although...

 was discovered in 1957.
His trip of 25 miles ended when he was forced to land by lack of buoyancy.

Transatlantic aspiratons

As one who recognized the possibilities of balloon flight by use of the high wind yet to be named the Jet Stream
Jet stream
Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow air currents found in the atmospheres of some planets, including Earth. The main jet streams are located near the tropopause, the transition between the troposphere and the stratosphere . The major jet streams on Earth are westerly winds...

, Wise had made plans for a transatlantic flight in a large aerostat he had built and named Atlantic. Unfortunately his test flights for just such a trip were less than successful. Where he had enjoined company with another yet younger prominent balloonist, a Mr. John LaMountain, an 1857 pre-flight of theirs had ended up caught by a windstorm over Lake Ontario forcing a crash landing in Henderson, New York
Henderson, New York
Henderson is a town in Jefferson County, New York, United States. The population was 1,360 at the 2010 census. The town is named after William Henderson, the original land owner....

, which damaged the balloon and ended their partnership. La Mountain took over ownership of the Atlantic but any further talk of a transatlantic flight was never heard.

American Civil War

Wise was one of several top American balloonists who made a bid for Chief Aeronaut of a yet-to-be-established balloon corps for the Union Army during the opening months of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 (see Union Army Balloon Corps
Union Army Balloon Corps
The Union Army Balloon Corps was a branch of the Union Army during the American Civil War, established by presidential appointee Thaddeus S. C. Lowe...

). Against major competition which included Thaddeus S. C. Lowe
Thaddeus S. C. Lowe
Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe , also known as Professor T. S. C. Lowe, was an American Civil War aeronaut, scientist and inventor, mostly self-educated in the fields of chemistry, meteorology, and aeronautics, and the father of military aerial reconnaissance in the United States...

 and John La Mountain, he lacked either the endosements of the science community, like those of Prof. Lowe, or the insidious propaganda ploys, like those of La Mountain. However, he did attract enough attention from topographical engineers to be recommended for building a balloon for the purposes of demonstrating aerial surveillance for map making and undercut the bids of the others by $200.

By July 19, 1861 General Irvin McDowell
Irvin McDowell
Irvin McDowell was a career American army officer. He is best known for his defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run, the first large-scale battle of the American Civil War.-Early life:...

's army was prepared to face the First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas , was fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the City of Manassas...

. McDowell had called for a balloon to be sent to the front, but the Engineers awaited the belated arrival of John Wise. Thaddeus Lowe was at the ready and had been called up to inflate his balloon in Wise's stead. At the last minute Wise appeared with papers in hand demanding that Lowe step aside and allow him to inflate his balloon, which was rightfully commissioned into action. Major Albert J. Myer
Albert J. Myer
Albert James Myer was a surgeon and United States Army officer. He is known as the father of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, as its first chief signal officer just prior to the American Civil War, the inventor of wig-wag signaling , and also as the father of the U.S...

 and 20 men from the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteers secured the inflated balloon to a wagon and proceeded toward the battlefield at Centerville, Virginia. In his haste to move forward, Myer entangled the balloon in the trees, which disabled the craft and permanently removed Wise from involvement in the Civil War.

In January 1918, during World War I, the Army established Camp John Wise Aerostation at San Antonio, (in what is now Olmos Park) Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

, as a war balloon training center.


On 28 September 1879, aged 71, he disappeared with a passenger George Burr on a trip in high winds from East St. Louis
East St. Louis, Illinois
East St. Louis is a city located in St. Clair County, Illinois, USA, directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri in the Metro-East region of Southern Illinois. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 27,006, less than one-third of its peak of 82,366 in 1950...

, Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

 over Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan is one of the five Great Lakes of North America and the only one located entirely within the United States. It is the second largest of the Great Lakes by volume and the third largest by surface area, after Lake Superior and Lake Huron...

. It is reported the Balloon was seen over Carlinville, Illinois
Carlinville, Illinois
Carlinville is a city in Macoupin County, Illinois, United States. As of the 2000 Census, the population was 5,685, and 5,912 at a 2009 estimate. It is the county seat of Macoupin County, and so it is an outlying part of the Metro-East region of the Greater St...

or was seen 35 miles from Chicago drifting northeastward toward Lake Michigan at "Miller's Station
Mount Prospect, Illinois
Mount Prospect is a village in Elk Grove and Wheeling Townships in Cook County, Illinois, about northwest of downtown Chicago. As of the 2010 census, the village had a total population of 54,167.-Geography:...

". No trace of Wise or the balloon "Pathfinder" have ever been found. The body of George Burr, the passenger, was found in Lake Michigan, and left little doubt as to the fate of John Wise.

In 44 years, Wise had made 463 ascents. Wise published a System of Aeronautics (Philadelphia, 1850).

See also

  • List of accidents and incidents involving military aircraft (pre-1925)
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