America’s First Airmail
Lafayette, Indiana, in 1859 was by far the largest of the two dozen or so American towns named for the French general. Its nearly ten thousand citizens were proud of their newspapers, their breweries, and their town’s position as head of navigation on the Wabash. For a place that a few years earlier had been a frontier outpost, Lafayette’s progress seemed dizzying, and that summer Lafayette would achieve yet another distinction: its Center Square would become the takeoff point for the nation’s first airmail flight.
The pilot for this mission was the fifty-one-year-old John Wise, whom the Dictionary of American Biography refers to as “the first American aeronaut of any consequence.” During his long career, which ended with a plunge into Lake Michigan in 1879, Wise developed improved methods of balloon construction, invented the ripcord for use in rapid descent, and did much meteorological research. The month before his ascent from Lafayette, Wise had attempted a flight from St. Louis to New York, but a fierce storm forced him to land at Henderson, New York. The 804-mile voyage set a record that would last until 1900. Still, Wise was not satisfied, and when another balloon became available, he jumped at the chance to finish off his flight.
John Wise was a friend of Charles Wetherill, a distinguished chemist who had moved to Lafayette in 1856 after marrying a local woman. Recently he had been investigating the chemistry of the atmosphere, and he wanted Wise to take some measurements of ozone from a balloon that Wetherill would provide. Fortunately, Lafayette was more or less due west of New York City, so that Wise would be able to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds. Moreover, Lafayette had a large gasworks that could inflate his balloon.
The thermometer registered ninety-four degrees when the balloon Jupiter rose from the town square at 2:00 P.M. on August 17. In addition to Wise, the balloon carried the ozone-testing materials, a light lunch, some copies of the Lafayette Courier , 23 pamphlets, and 123 letters. (Other balloonists, including Wise, had carried letters before, but his flight was the first with official, stamped mail.) Quickly Jupiter shot up to cloud level. There, to everyone’s bewilderment, it sat. Fixed in space while awaiting the west-east winds, it hovered over the city for more than an hour. Wise recorded in his log: “My friends below wonder why I was not going on my voyage east. I thought so myself, but what can I do? Jupiter as full as a drum—no wind—not a breath!”
Wise tried to get the great sphere moving with a palm-leaf fan, but it put the balloon “only slightly into motion, revolving in a slovenly fashion to and fro.…” In search of more favorable conditions, the aeronaut ascended to a point where the barometer read twenty-four inches, recording a slight detection of ozone on the test paper as he grazed a cloud. He discharged more ballast and rose again until the reading was twenty-one, at which point the Wabash was “a crooked thread of water.” Jupiter remained motionless.
The aeronaut wrote: “If I can’t make a trip east, I will remain in this gorgeous chamber of heaven! I feel rejoiced— invigorated—extremely happy!” At 3:55 P.M. Wise shoveled overboard nearly fifty pounds of sand and reported: “The balloon, from a completely filled distension of a few minutes previous, is now quite flaccid in her lower hemisphere.”
Finally a breeze picked up and the balloon started to move, only to become motionless again at Grand Prairie, sixteen miles south of Lafayette. Here John Wise landed and rested for about twenty minutes, distributing slices of bread and a few newspapers to a hastily assembled group of some thirty Hoosiers. “I put the airship in balanced trim, so that it just glided over the top of the prairie grass,” he recorded later. “The people all followed it as it slowly drifted along at a common pace, until I tipped out a little sack of sand to make it surmount a fence, and then the upsoaring Jupiter caused most wonder-stricken upturned faces.” With scarcely a hundred pounds of ballast left, the air-sailor tried again for the great west-east current above. He found it at a barometric reading of 17.6, at a height of nearly three miles. He was traveling due east at last! But there wasn’t enough ballast left for a whole night’s sail. Sunset alone would require him to release nearly all the remaining sand to compensate for the condensation of Jupiter ’s gas.
Near Crawfordsville, about thirty miles from Lafayette, Wise made use of some impromptu parachute equipment, which he was carrying for experimental purposes. He tied the airmail securely to a muslin sheet nine feet square with strings about five yards long fastened to the corners. Then he dropped it overboard. A slight breeze indicated that the mail would fall somewhat south of the village. Wise pulled Jupiter ’s valve and overtook the parachute. Gently they descended together, balloon and airmail, landing within fifty yards of each other on the road six miles south of Crawfordsville. The airmail was dispatched to New York City by the New Albany & Southern Railroad.
Meanwhile, back in Lafayette, hearts were heavy, but not for long. BINGE STIRS CITY AFTER FLIGHT , a newspaper reported the next day. Herbert’s, a local brewery, came to the rescue. The aborted flight and the failure to deliver the mail to the East Coast had hurt the town’s pride, and “What could blunt the sharp pangs of disappointment more than a gulp of Herbert’s lager?” queried one reporter. Another news story reported that “every light pole had a lien on it!” A less eloquent journalist described the scene simply as “a colossal drunk.”
Wise’s effort failed to impress the Post Office, which continued to rely on railroads for most of the next century. Experimental airmail service, using airplanes this time, was begun in 1918 as a wartime measure and quickly abandoned. Not until the 1930s would mail easily and routinely fly from place to place.