A Pioneer Aeronaut
1808 - 1879
The following was written for the organizational meeting of The John Wise Balloon Society and was originally printed in the first issue of the society’s newsletter. It is reprinted here as the result of questions from many new members regarding the origin of the name of the society.
By Nick Moehlmann
John Wise was born in Lancaster, Pa., on February 24, 1808, to William and Mary Trey Weiss, the fourth of eight children. It was customary in third generation Lancaster County German families to anglicize the patronym either by translation (White) or phonetically, the method adopted by the Weiss family.
John Wise was an apprentice cabinetmaker from age 16 to 21 and was employed briefly as a piano maker thereafter. He later said that he became interested in ballooning as the result of reading an article in a German language newspaper when he was 14. In 1835, while living in Philadelphia, he decided to build his own balloon.
At that time ballooning was almost entirely a commercial venture, that is, an ascension was attendant with a great deal of publicity designed to draw many paying spectators so that a profit might be made. It was necessarily so because the building of a balloon and the filling with hydrogen or city gas was an expensive undertaking.
Balloons were constructed of silk if the builder was using the best method of the day or of some lesser fabric if cost was an important consideration. The coatings were usually dopes or varnishes. John Wise’s first balloon was more for his own flying pleasure and scientific curiosity than it was a commercial proposition, so cost was critical. It was made from common bedsheet muslin and coated with a home brew of eight pounds of birdlime suspended in linseed oil. It is interesting to note that a great problem with these early varnished balloons was that they tended to self-destruct by spontaneous combustion during storage.
Wise’s first flight was made in Philadelphia on May 2, 1835. His second flight was launched in Lebanon County on July 4 of the same year. Subsequent flights took place in many of the counties of Central Pennsylvania including, of course, a large number in Lancaster. During the next few years he lived at various places in Lebanon and Dauphin Counties before re-settling in his native Lancaster. One of the fascinating stories of his early ballooning career was the design and construction, in 1838, of a balloon which would, when deflated aloft, form a parachute by the migration of the lower half of the envelope into the upper, thus allowing a controlled descent. Wise flew this balloon from Easton, Pa., in bad weather, which caused the balloon to rupture. However, in this unintended test of the contraption, it worked! Wise did not originate the idea but he surely was the first to fly the idea and survive its testing.
John Wise was one of the first to use a dragline to stabilize altitude. He originated the rip panel for instant deflation. (Prior to this the accepted, dangerous method of deflation was for the aeronaut to climb up the netting to the top of the balloon and grasp the valve between his knees. The balloon lines were then released. The weight of the aeronaut on top of the balloon caused the envelope to invert allowing the gas to escape through the umbilical. There are cases of the aeronaut being carried away and killed by the fouling of the umbilical in the lines, preventing the deflation.) He was among the first to recognize the effect of solar heating and he built a black balloon to make use of it.
Wise became both a barnstormer, making ascents throughout the east at fairs and other events, and a serious scholar and expert on atmospheric theory. His lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic was never realized for financial reasons though twice he petitioned Congress for the funds to undertake such a venture.
By 1879 John Wise was the nation’s most senior, most successful and most famous aeronaut. On September 28, 1879, now 71 years old, with one passenger he launched from West St. Louis, Illinois, in high winds. The flight took him over Lake Michigan. He was never seen again, nor were his remains ever recovered. He had made 463 ascents during 44 years of ballooning and this. . . “coupled with his enthusiasm, generosity, and scientific curiosity, clearly mark him as the most distinguished and experienced of American aeronauts.”*
*Tom D. Crouch, THE EAGLE ALOFT, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983, page 450. All the facts from this very brief biographical sketch are taken from this source.
See also: John Wise, THROUGH THE AIR, A narrative of Forty Years Experience as an Aeronaut, To-Day Printing and Publishing Company, 1873; Reprinted by Arno Press, Inc., 1972