The United States Postal Service commemorated the 100th anniversary of its Air Mail services with two stamps released earlier this year. However, mail had been transported by air long before the Army pilots in their Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM “Jenny” biplanes made their fights on May 15, 1918. The first airmail flight in the United States actually occurred nearly 60 years before in Lafayette, Indiana. While John Wise isn’t the household name that later aeronautical pioneers such as the Wright Brothers, Louis Blériot or Charles Lindbergh, it was he who made an ascent in a hot air balloon called Jupiter on August 17, 1859, carrying 123 letters to make the first official airmail delivery run for the U.S. Post Office. Amazingly enough, a flight cover still exists from this event. Wise made over 400 flights during his lifetime and was responsible for several innovations in balloon design.
John Wise was born on February 24, 1808, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 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; after the age of 21 he briefly became a piano maker. 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 May 2, 1835. As the construction had been self-financed the materials of his home-made balloon were not of the highest quality. He used muslin sheet coated with a mixture of birdlime suspended in linseed oil 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 on Independence Day 1835. He attempted to open the valve on the top of the balloon, but lost control, and it burst, compelling him to descend. On October 1, 1835, he attempted an ascension from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but was thrown from the car and became unconscious while the balloon ascended alone. On May 7, 1836, he ascended again from Lancaster, and landed in Harford County, Maryland, 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 September 18, 1837, alighting in the Delaware River, where he was rescued. On this trip he set loose two parachutes 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, Wise conducted various experiments on atmospheric pressure, pneumatics and hydrostatics, and while his primary interest remained scientific, he joined the ranks of commercial balloonists performing at shows and county fairs.
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, on August 11, 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 October 1, 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 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 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).
Another of Wise’s innovations was 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 recognized 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, noting there was a “great river of air which always blows from west to east”.
As one who recognized the possibilities of balloon flight by use of this high wind, In 1843, he conceived a project for crossing the Atlantic Ocean and asked Congress to appropriate $15,000 for the project. Congress rejected the appropriation. During the Mexican War, Wise devised a plan to take the city of Vera Cruz, which was guarded by the imposing fortress of San Juan de Ulua. He suggested fabricating a gas balloon capable of lifting 20,000 pounds, attaching it to a five-mile-long cable and flying the craft over the fortress so that 18,000 pounds of explosives could be dropped on it. Wise sent his ambitious idea to the War Department, but it appears to have gone unanswered.
Wise continued to make plans for a transatlantic flight in a large aerostat he had built and named Atlantic. Unfortunately, his test flights for the trip were less than successful. He had partnered with another yet younger prominent balloonist, John LaMountain. A pre-flight of theirs in 1859 had ended up caught by a windstorm over Lake Ontario forcing a crash landing in Henderson, New York, 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 again.
On August 17, 1859, he made the first flight of local airmail in the U.S. from Lafayette, Indiana, to Crawfordsville, Indiana, in a balloon Wise named Jupiter, carrying 123 letters and 23 circulars of which one cover was discovered in 1957. His trip of 25 miles ended when he was forced to land by lack of buoyancy. Wise’s 1859 flight was of particular interest because it was advertised in advance to be carrying “circulars, letter bag, express mail, the charter greetings from Lafayette to her sister Cities in the east, etc.” Indeed, Postmaster Thomas Wood published the following beforehand:
Express mail by the balloon Jupiter.
All persons who wish to send letters to their friends in the East by the balloon today must deliver them at the post office previous to noon as the Jupiter’s mail closes at that hour. The letters must be addressed by the words “Via Balloon Jupiter,” added to the ordinary direction and prepaid. This mail will be conveyed by Mr. Wise to the place of landing with the balloon when it will be placed in the nearest post office for distribution.
The letters were placed in a ‘brass- locked’ mail bag marked ‘New York City.’ Wise was originally scheduled to ascend on August 16 at 3:30 p.m., but unfavorable conditions forced him to delay his voyage by one day. On August 17, at precisely 2:00 p.m., the Jupiter ascended from a vacant lot near the Lafayette gas works. It was Wise’s 233rd voyage by balloon. The local newspaper referred to the crowd as “the largest ever assembled at Lafayette on any occasion.” Wise claimed “not less than 20,000 persons” gathered in the town square.
Wise, 51 years old at the time, was also hoping to set a record for the longest balloon flight. In addition to the mail bag, he carried what he referred to as a “good Smithsonian barometer,” which had been given to him by Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first Secretary. Wise was a member of Henry’s small army of weather observing volunteers, faithfully reporting his weather observations back to the Smithsonian.
As the Jupiter rose high above the city of Lafayette, Wise found that the wind was blowing southwest, not east. Then the winds grew still and the balloon seemed scarcely to move at all. Although the Jupiter ascended to 14,000 feet, Wise still could not find an air current to carry him east. Finally, the balloon started to drift south and Wise was forced to throw most of his ballast overboard. Knowing that the small amount of ballast that remained would not “suffice for a whole night’s sail,” Wise was forced to land a few miles south of Crawfordsville, just thirty miles from Lafayette. He had been in the air five hours and seven minutes. The Lafayette Daily Courier mocked the flight as “trans-county-nental.”
In an article published a few days after his flight in the Jupiter, Wise wrote:
Knowing that if there were no currents below I could land safely and easily land in the town, and in order to make the arrival more interesting I concluded to send my letter mail ahead; and to effect this in a systematic form, the following expedient was adopted: having with me a muslin sheet nine feet square, I attached to each of its corners strings of about five yards in length. These were tied together at their lower extremities, and to this knot was attached the mail bag, and then I dropped it overboard. It made an admirable parachute. A few minutes travel informed me that it would drift a considerable distance to the south of Crawfordsville, as there was a slight breeze below drifting it in that direction. I pulled the valve of “Jupiter,” and followed, and soon overtook the mail. We kept near together all the way down, as I could regulate the descent of the parachute, and both aerial machines landed within fifty feet of each other on the public road six miles south of Crawfordsville, their descent being very slow.
The mail had gone partway by air, but upon landing Wise transferred the mailbag to a postal agent for the New Albany & Salem Railroad who put it aboard a train to New York City to assure the swift completion of its appointed round. Of 146 pieces of mail reportedly carried on this flight, to date only one surviving cover and accompanying letter have been found. Its discovery was announced as “a major philatelic find” in an article written by F.W. Kessler published in the February 16, 1957, issue of Stamps magazine. It now resides at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
The cover was franked with a 3-cent stamp (about 80 cents in today’s buying power) bears the inscription ‘via Balloon Jupiter.’ The date ‘1858’ had clearly been added later, using a different ink, and was off by a year. The embossed cover was postmarked ‘Lafayette Ind. Aug 16, 1859’ — the original planned date for the flight — and addressed to William H. Munn of No. 24, West 26th Street in New York City.
Enclosed in the envelope was a letter, which appears to be in a hand writing different than that on the cover. The letter reads:
Lafayette, August 16
Thinking you would be pleased to hear of my improved health I embrace the opportunity of sending you a line in this new and novel way of sending letters in a balloon.
Professor Wise leaves the City of Lafayette this day at half past three in his balloon Jupiter and expects to land in Philadelphia or N. York.
Love to all your
Mary A. Wells
A month later, Wise tried again. This time he and his balloon made it as far as Henderson, New York — flying nearly 800 miles. A storm forced a crash landing, and he lost the mail in the crash. This is probably the same flight which ended the partnership between Wise and John LaMountain.
Wise would continue pursuing ballooning for another 20 years. He 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. Against major competition which included Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and John LaMountain, he lacked either the endorsements of the science community, like those of Professor Lowe, or the insidious propaganda ploys, like those of LaMountain. However, he did attract enough attention by the Topographical Engineers to be asked to build a balloon for the purposes of demonstrating aerial surveillance for map making and undercut the bids of the others by $200.
Mary Hoehling indicated that Captain Whipple of the Topographical Engineers told Lowe that Wise was preparing to bring up his own balloon, supposedly the Atlantic. Other accounts state that John LaMountain had taken possession of the Atlantic after a failed flight he made with Wise in 1859, and later place the Atlantic with LaMountain at Fort Monroe. Lowe’s report says that Captain Whipple indicated they had instructed Wise to construct a new balloon. He also proposed that Lowe pilot the new balloon. Professor Lowe was vehemently opposed to flying one of Wise’s old-style balloons.
The Engineers waited the through most of July 1861 for John Wise to arrive on scene. By July 19, General Irwin McDowell’s army was prepared to face the First Battle of Bull Run (Centreville). McDowell began calling for a balloon to be brought to the front lines. Wise was not to be found so Thaddeus Lowe was called up to inflate his own balloon and prepare to set out for Falls Church.
According to Mary Hoehling, Wise appeared at the last minute with legal papers in hand and demanded that Lowe stop his inflating of the Enterprise and let him inflate his balloon, which was rightfully commissioned into action. Lowe describes the inflation incident in his official report less dramatically, saying that he was told by the gas plant supervisor to disconnect and let another balloon go first. Lowe did not name names, but it is not likely that it was anyone other than Wise. Lowe’s report about a new balloon has to be considered over Hoehling’s account of the Atlantic.
Major Albert J. Myer and 20 men from the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteers secured the inflated balloon to a wagon — a move that Wise argued against — and proceeded toward the battlefield at Centerville, Virginia. His objections were well founded. In Myer’s haste to move forward, the faster pace set by the trotting horses caused the balloon to begin swaying and it was promptly entangled in the branches of the roadside trees. Following one bad decision with another, Myer ordered the horses driven forward to free the balloon, which tore the fabric. A disconsolate Wise returned to Washington with his damaged balloon.
Wise made the necessary repairs to the shredded silk and successfully made an ascension over Arlington on July 25, where he noted the presence of Confederate forces and with his rifle supposedly fired the first hostile shot from an airborne contrivance in military history. Two days later, he was directed to take his balloon to Ball’s Cross Roads. During the journey, Wise noticed that the troops towing the balloon were hampered by their knapsacks and rifles, so he had them remove their equipment and place it inside the balloon’s gondola. The party soon encountered winds that made the balloon sway, and the mooring ropes came into contact with telegraph wires. The wires cut through the ropes and the balloon sailed away. It came back to earth eventually in damaged condition near a New York regiment whose members deflated it and sent it back to Washington, after first enjoying a snack thanks to the contents of the knapsacks found in the balloon’s gondola. Wise returned home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
On September 28, 1879, aged 71, John Wise disappeared with a passenger —George Burr — on a trip in high speed winds from East St. Louis, Illinois, over Lake Michigan. It is reported the balloon was seen over Carlinville, Illinois, or was seen 35 miles from Chicago drifting northeastward toward Lake Michigan at “Miller’s Station”. No trace of Wise or the balloon Pathfinder have ever been found. The body of George Burr, the passenger, washed up on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, and left little doubt as to the fate of John Wise.
In 44 years, Wise had made 463 balloon ascents. He also published A System of Aeronautics (Philadelphia, 1850), and Through the Air: A Narrative of Forty Years’ Experience as an Aeronaut (Philadelphia, 1873).
In addition to launching his flight aboard the Jupiter from Lafayette, Indiana, Wise also conducted experiments for a local resident to detect the presence of ozone in the upper atmosphere during this flight. Community interest in aviation continued when Purdue University was established in 1869 across the Wabash River in what was to become West Lafayette. The Purdue Aero Club was organized in 1910 under the direction of Professor Cicero B. Veal of Mechanical Engineering, and the community’s first aircraft demonstration was held on June 13, 1911. Sponsored by the Purdue Alumni Association and the Lafayette Journal newspaper, this Aviation Day attracted an estimated 17,000 people. Other flights to campus during the next few years continued to draw large crowds.
The first Purdue graduate to become an aviator was J. Clifford Turpin who was taught to fly by Orville Wright. Turpin set an altitude record of 9,400 feet in 1911, establishing an alumni tradition that was continued 55 years later, when an X-2 aircraft flown by Captain Iven C. Kincheloe set an altitude record of 126,000 feet in 1956. That record was subsequently surpassed by alumni Neil A. Armstrong and Eugene A. Cernan during their flights to the moon. Lieutenant George W. Haskins was the first alumnus to land on campus, as he flew from Dayton, Ohio, in 1919 with a resolution from the Dayton alumni group proposing formation of a School of Aviation Engineering at Purdue.
An aeronautics laboratory was well established by 1929 in Heavilon Hall equipped with a fully assembled airplane and operating engines, along with wind tunnels for aerodynamic measurements. In 1930, Purdue became the first U.S. university to offer college credit for flight training and it opened the nation’s first college-owned airport in 1934. Amelia Earhart held the position of Counselor on Careers for Women at Purdue from 1935 until her disappearance in 1937. Purdue was also instrumental in providing funds for Earhart’s ill-fated “Flying Laboratory,” the Lockheed Electra which she intended to fly around the world in 1937. The University library houses an extensive Earhart collection, which continues to be studied by those seeking to solve the mystery surrounding her final flight.
In January 1918, during World War I, the U.S. Army established the Camp John Wise Aerostation as a war balloon training center just north of San Antonio, Texas, on a bluff overlooking the Olmos Basin across from Alamo Heights in what is now Olmos Park. The site was selected because of the number of recruits and supplies in close proximity and the Missouri Aeronautical Society’s Balloon School was just two miles away. The Signal Corps had determined that this part of Texas provided some of the best flying conditions in the country with 270 days a year of clear flying weather. Lieutenant Colonel James Prentice was the first commander of Camp John Wise; a balloon was in the air by the middle of February.
Camp John Wise functioned vigorously through the end of the war, and into the early months of 1919. At the war’s end, most men were mustered out of the Army, and sent home. In early 1919, the Army made a decision to close Camp John Wise, and assign the remaining Balloon Companies to a new school to be set up south of town at Brooks Field. On May20, 1919, Camp John Wise was abandoned. The serviceable equipment and remaining 15 Balloon Companies were moved to Brooks Field. The buildings and excess materials were later auctioned at a public sale and the property sold to land developers. The city of Olmos Park now overlays the site.
The first airmail flight in an airplane took place half-a-century after John Wise’s ascent in the Jupiter, when three letters were carried a few miles between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California, in February 1911.
Scott #C54 was issued on August 17, 1959, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of John Wise’s balloon flight from Lafayette to Crawfordsville, Indiana. His balloon, the Jupiter, is depicted on the stamp, with a crowd below and flags on the balloon netting. In dark blue and red, the stamp is denominated 7 cents for the Air Mail rate then in effect. Designed by Austin Briggs, the stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the Giori press, and production was of 200 subjects in four panes or sheets of 50 stamps each, perforated 11. A total of 79,290,000 copies of the stamp were issued.
First day ceremonies were held in Lafayette, Indiana, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield gave a speech with helicopter demonstrations and balloon ascensions adding to the occasion. One memorable flight was made by the then Balloon Club of America, launching from Lafayette in an effort to trace at least part of the flight John Wise made, and carrying first day covers with them. The majority of the first day covers (of which there are many popular cachets), remained on the ground, cancelled with the date Aug. 17, 1959; over 383,000 covers were reported to have been issued.
The sole cover and letter known from the 1858 flight of the Jupiter were auctioned by H.R. Harmer of New York on November 4, 1964 (Sale No. 1593), The Smithsonian Institution, recognizing the unique nature of the items, successfully bid on them. The Balloon Jupiter cover and letter have been exhibited numerous times at the Smithsonian and were chosen for the inaugural philatelic rarities exhibition when the National Postal Museum opened on July 30, 1993. They are considered to be among the most important items in the national philatelic collection.