John Wise

From Inventing aviation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

John Wise (b. 24 February 1808; d. 28 or 29 September 1879) was an American balloonist and inventor active from 1835 until his death. In 1850 he published an extensive history of ballooning and recounting of his personal adventures titled A System of Aeronautics. In 1873 he published Through the Air, which looks like an expanded version of the former.

Wise was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and made his first ascents in that area.[1] As a youth he experimented with hot-air balloons and kites. One unmanned paper balloon with a fire onboard set fire to a nearby house, bringing some unfavorable scrutiny upon young Wise. He tried some different professions but came back to ballooning in 1835.[2] In 1836 he traveled in a balloon from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Harford County, Maryland.[1]

In 1838, following a severe fall, he demonstrated conversion of his balloon into a parachute.[1] To accomplish this he developed the "rip panel", which introduced the possibility of quick deflation.[3] He continued to experiment on the motion of falling bodies. He was intrigued by observations of strange electrical, acoustic, and visual phenomena observed at high altitudes during an ascent to 10,000 feet from Columbus, Ohio, in 1851.[1]

Wise had a long-term ambition to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon. On 20 December 1843 he submitted a petition to Congress for $15,000 to fund construction of a balloon with 100' diameter and 25,000 lbs. lifting power. (During the Mexican War he proposed unsuccessfully to drop 18,000 of bombs on a fortress from a similar balloon.)[4]

In 1858 Wise obtained financial backing from O. A. Gager of Vermont, who helped him to set up the Trans-Atlantic Balloon Company and build the Atlantic. According to Wise's longstanding plan, the balloon was to make a preparatory flight from St. Louis to the East Coast. It took off on 1 July 1859. After several brushes with death and irreparable damage to the balloon the crew landed in Jefferson County, New York, having made a distance of 826 miles and having flown considerably further. The flight set a new world record which stood for 41 years.[5]

In 1859 Wise made the first official attempt at air mail delivery in the U.S., taking off from Lafayette, Indiana, with 123 letters destined for New York. However, he was forced to land in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and the letters were shipped the rest of the way by train.[6] Wise carried a barometer given him by Smithsonian secretary Joseph Henry.[7]

He became involved in military ballooning in the civil war and designed a steam-powered "war balloon" intended for launching hand grenades. However, he lost the bid to manage the Union's aeronautic corps to Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.[8]

He was presumed dead after his vessel the "Pathfinder" was lost in 1879 and a crewman's body found in Lake Michigan.[1]

Publications by or about John Wise



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Samuel Archer King, "Wise, John (aëronaut)"; Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography ed. James Grant Wilson & John Fiske, 1889.
  2. Horgan, 1965, 55.
  3. Horgan, 1965, pp. 57–58.

    On August 11, 1838, after ascending from Easton, Pennsylvania, his balloon burst at an altitude of 13,000 feet because of the expansion of the hydrogen. The ruptured envelope, however, gathered at the top of the net rigging and the whole apparatus acted as a parachute. Wise landed hard but unhurt. Amazed at his discovery, he decided to attempt it deliberately. On October 1, 1838, he ascended from Philadelphia, collapsed the bag by pulling a rope which opened a seam, and descended successfully.
    These incidents led him to the development of "his greatest contribution" to the science of ballooning -- the "rip panel," which allowed balloonists to deflate their gasbags instantly on landing and thus not be dragged all over the countryside on windy days. This was one of perhaps the two most significant contributions (exclusive of the motor for dirigibility) to ballooning in the nineteenth century. The other was the "drag rope" [...]

  4. Horgan, 1965, p. 59.
  5. Horgan, 1965, pp. 60–69.
  6. Priya Ganapatti, "Aug. 17, 1859: U.S. Airmail Carried by Balloon"; Wired, 17 August 2010.
  7. "The 150th Anniversary of the Ballon Jupiter Airmail Flight", Smithsonian National Postal Museum".
  8. "Celebrated Lancaster ‘aeronaut’ John Wise made a splash in the Civil War", Lancaster Online, 22 September 2011.