SH Archive Personal Airships, The History of Balloons, and the First US Air Mail Delivery OP Username
HiStoryBoost OP Date
2019-10-17 21:06:21 Reaction Score
8 Reply Count

Archive Archive
Sep 8, 2020
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I like to start my research close to home, as it seems there are a vast number of resources available for the history of Pennsylvania. I’ve seen, or read, about a few of the following, but only today did I put a few things together.

Did we have blimps / personal airships / balloons in the mid 1800’s that we could control completely, to the point we used them for travel and delivering mail? Let’s explore.

John Wise was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1808. He developed his own personal “balloon” in 1835 for leisurely flight and exploration. That same year (1835) he flew his homemade balloon in Philadelphia. He continued to make flight after flight in his balloon.


In 1836 he traveled 75 miles by balloon from Lancaster to Maryland.

In 1837, he used a parachute for the first time when his balloon went down over the Delaware river. Seriously, Wiki says he was a “pioneer” of the use of parachutes.

“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”

It gets better. In 1938 his balloon popped at 13,000 feet, but his balloon was designed to turn into a parachute when it fell to the ground. He survived with ease.

John Wise also made the first US Air Mail Delivery, carrying 123 postages 25 miles by air.

“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 named Jupiter.” The trip was roughly 25 miles.

John Wise was considered dead in 1879 when his balloon dissappeared after leaving St. Louis. He had one passenger, who was found.

Interestingly, John Wise also had a hand in photography, and had a collection of photographs which were donated to the Lancaster Historical Society. I stumbled across those recently and found a few keepers.

First, here is an ad for John Wise’s balloon business in Philadelphia. Pretty cool you can buy your own personal balloon in the mid 1800’s, meant to fly by yourself... (Note the “Oldest Aeronaut in the world”. Also note how the ad states a balloon can cure what ails you!)


Now to the two photographs from his collection that most astonished me. Simply put, they appear to be of a man, riding a personal blimp, with no cares in the world, in the 1800’s.




So many questions of how this worked. Did these airships have directional controls? Is there any other evidence of personal blimps with photographs? Is this achievable for the late 1800’s?

Oddly, these two ships resemble modern day thermal airships...

“A thermal airship is an airship that generates buoyancy by heating air in a large chamber... This is very similar to a hot air balloon, with the notable exception that an airship has a powered means of propulsion, whilst a hot air balloon relies on winds for navigation... The first public flight of a hot air airship was made by Don Cameron (UK) in a Cameron D-96 at the Icicle Meet in January 1973.”

Was it 1973 or the late 1800’s?

So what do you think we have here? From such humble beginnings I was intrigued to try to learn more about John Wise, however the information was mostly scarce. I understand we had hot air balloons in the 1700’s, but to what extent do you think this technology was used?

(Finally, a gathering in Wise’s hometown of Lancaster for one of his later launches in 1868; shown below.)

Note: This OP was recovered from BING cache.
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