John Wise (balloonist)

John Wise (24 February 180828 September 1879?) was a pioneer in the field of ballooning. He made over 400 flights during his lifetime and was responsible for several innovations in balloon design.


Early career

John Wise was born on 24 February 1808 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States, to William and Mary Trey Weiss who anglicized his surname to Wise (pronounced almost the same way). 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 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. He took a second flight in Lebanon County on Independence Day 1835 and made further flights in Pennsylvania over the next few years. He 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.

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 working version and the first to demonstrate its use. On a flight from Easton, Pennsylvania in bad weather, the design was put to an impromptu test when Wise's balloon was punctured. Wise survived without injury.

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).

Among his 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, 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 in the U.S. from Lafayette, Indiana to Crawfordsville, Indiana carrying 123 letters and 23 circulars of which one cover was discovered in 1957. [cite book | last = Mackay | first = James A. | authorlink = James A. Mackay | title = Airmails 1870–1970 | publisher = B.T. Batsford Ltd. | date = 1971 | location = London | pages = pp. 17–18 | id = ISBN 0713403802 ] 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, Wise had made plans for a transatlantic flight. 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 in a windstorm over Lake Ontario forcing a crash landing which damagd the balloon "Atlantic" and ended their partnership. LaMountain took over ownership of the balloon and 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 (see Union Army Balloon Corps). Against major competition which included Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and John LaMountain, he lacked either the endosements of the science community, like those of Prof. Lowe, or the insidious propaganda ploys, like those of LaMountain. However, he did attract enough attention from the Topographcical Engineers to be recommended for building a balloon for the purposes of demonstrating aerial surveillance for map making.

By July 19, 1861 General Irvin McDowell's army was prepared to face the Battle of Bull Run. McDowell had called for a ballon 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. As Wise proceeded with a fully inflated balloon toward the battlefield at Centerville, Virginia, he became entangled in the brush which disabled his craft and permanently removed him from involvement in the Civil War. [Lowe's Official Report Part I.]


On 28 September 1879, aged 71, he disappeared with a passenger on a trip in high winds from East St. Louis, Illinois over Lake Michigan. No trace of Wise, the passenger or the balloon have ever been found. In 44 years, Wise had made 463 ascents.



*cite encyclopedia|encyclopedia =Encyclopædia Britannica|title = Parachute| publisher = Cambridge University Press| location = London| edition = 11th Ed.| date = 1911
*cite web|url=|title=John Wise, A Pioneer|publisher=John Wise Balloon Society of Central Pennsylvania|author=Nick Moehlmann|date=|accessdaymonth=2 July|accessyear=2007
*cite web|url=|title=The Pioneers, John Wise|publisher=Monash University Engineering Department|author=Russell Naughton|date=2002|accessdaymonth=2 July|accessyear=2007
*cite web|url=|title=History of the Purdue School of Aeronautics and Astronautics|publisher=Purdue University|author=|date=2007|accessdaymonth=2 July|accessyear=2007

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