The Greatest Balloon Voyage Ever Made

PrintPrintEmailEmailJohn Wise, known during his lifetime as the Father of American Ballooning, was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1808. He made many contributions to American airmanship and to the literature of aerostatics in a career which extended over forty years and included 446 free balloon ascensions. Unlike most of the American aeronauts of his day who used the great globes for entertainment at fairs and carnivals, Wise’s approach was scientific.

This scientific interest in aeronautics stemmed from boyhood when he was an avid student of all material relating to European ballooning which appeared in his father’s German newspapers. The names of the Frenchmen, the Montgolfier and Robert brothers, Charles, and Guarnerin; the Englishman, Green; and the Italian, Lunardi, all became familiar to him.

In 1822 when he was fourteen, he built and launched a small fire balloon (a Montgolfier). Unfortunately, it plunged to the roof of a house in the center of Lancaster and set fire to it. For some time after this episode, young Wise’s aeronautical activities were confined to experiments with kites and parachutes. By May, 1835, however, he had saved enough money from his trade as a pianoforte maker to build and inflate a full-sized hydrogen balloon. His first ascension and flight—the nine miles from Philadelphia to Haddonfield, New Jersey—was a success, and Wise promptly abandoned piano making to become a professional aeronaut.

Perhaps his most significant discovery was that a great current of air moves continually around the earth in a west-to-east direction. After Wise had struck this current a number of times in his flights, he began to search for it each time he went up. Finally in May, 1842, after an ascension from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, he wrote in his diary: “It is now beyond a doubt in my mind established that a current from west to east in the atmosphere is constantly in motion within the height of 12,000 feet above the ocean.”

Thereafter Wise spent his his trying to convince people of its practical significance. By means of this powerful and constant river of air he hoped to establish air lines across the country and eventually to Europe. He petitioned Congress for $15,000 to implement this proposal but even with the eloquent Stephen A. Douglas pleading his cause, all he got from the legislative body was derisive laughter.

In 1859 Wise decided that a successful balloon trip halfway across the American continent might demonstrate what could be done and so perhaps stimulate financial backing for a similar voyage to Europe. Another balloonist, a 29-year-old former seaman named John LaMountain from Troy, New York, built the balloon for the journey under Wise’s direction, and a Vermont businessman, O. A. Gager, footed the bills. When it was finished, the three men observed the silken globe, fifty feet in diameter and sixty feet high, and agreed to christen her the Atlantic . It was a good name, they thought, and of prophetic significance.

 

The starting point was St. Louis, Missouri, and the date set for the journey was July 1, 1859. By 6 P.M. the Atlantic , bulging with gas from one of the street mains of the gaslight company, was ready for her historic flight. In addition to her provisions—1,000 pounds of sand ballast, water, ice, a bucket of lemonade, a basket of wine, and sundry well-cooked articles of meat and game—she also carried a boat suspended beneath the basket.

John Wise, as director in chief, climbed into the wicker car, and below him, in the dangling boat, were Messrs. Gager (listed as “scientific observer") and LaMountain, and a Mr. Hyde, an eager-beaver reporter for the Missouri Republican , who had never been near a balloon in his life.

At 6:45 the Atlantic was cut loose and after a graceful and easy ascent moved oft in an easterly direction. For a time the airmen returned the waves and shouts of the enthusiastic thousands on the ground. Then “as the clatter and clang of the multifarious workshops of St. Louis faded into the mellow twilight of evening,” aeronaut Wise settled contentedly back in his wicker basket to observe the “trim and bearing of his noble ship.”

His satisfaction ended at once. With alarm he saw that the great globe was improperly rigged. Instead of resting equally upon the 36 ropes as it should, the whole weight of the balloon’s burden was pulling on only six ropes which were shorter than they should have been. These six were cutting dangerously into the body of the balloon.

 

Wise leaned out of his basket and called to Gager to come up from his boat and help him adjust the ropes. The two men stood on the rim of the basket and pulled and shoved at the ropes until their fingers were torn and bleeding. Half an hour later they had succeeded in equalizing the rigging. Gager slid back down into his boat, and Wise once more leaned back in contentment. He wrote lyrically in his log book: