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John Wise (1808-1879)

John Wise

As an adventurous and inquisitive young boy, John Wise was drawn to the skies above his native Lancaster County. He was fascinated by aerial pursuits and began to conduct experiments. He tied his cat to his homemade parachute and observed the cat's safe descent from a local church steeple. A keen interest in ballooning developed and Wise became a famous aeronaut. Although balloon ascensions were common at county fairs and carnivals he had never observed an ascension before he made his first one in Philadelphia in 1835. John Wise completed 462 balloon ascensions including Lancaster ascensions from Penn Square and the prison yard.

In the nineteenth century many ascensions were made just for the novelty of the event, but John Wise's approach was from a scientific perspective. Each ascension gave him a chance to conduct scientific investigations of the atmosphere, pneumatics and hydrostatics.

"Prof. Wise the Aeronaut"

It also gave him the opportunity to develop a more advanced flying machine. Wise was the first to observe the "great river of air which always blows from west to east" in the higher regions of the atmosphere. Today we call this phenomenon the jet stream. He also developed the ripcord safety mechanism.

Balloon Ascension from Lancaster's Penn Square

John Wise promoted the advantages of balloon transportation. 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. Wise suggested a plan to bomb the Castle at Vera Cruz during the Mexican War and during the Civil War the Bureau of Topographical Engineers requested his services as a balloonist. He is credited with the first airmail transportation in 1859.

Detailed descriptions of his ascensions and experiments are found in his book, Through the Air, published in 1873. The last ascent of John Wise took place on September 29, 1879 from St. Louis, Missouri. This flight ended disastrously in Lake Michigan where his balloon fell and his remains lie.