Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 953:
AIR MAIL, 1859

by John H. John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 953.

Today, we make the first air mail delivery -- or do we? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My birthday this year is the 135th birthday of the first air mail delivery. On that hot summer day in 1859, John Wise lifted off from the center square of Lafayette, Indiana, in a balloon.

Wise was 51 and America's leading aeronaut. As a young man, he'd made pianofortes in Philadelphia. But, for the last 24 years, he'd turned those mechanical skills on balloons. Other aeronauts were daredevils. Wise was a serious innovator. People called him, "The Professor." A month before that day in 1859, he'd tried to fly a mail bag from St. Louis to New York City.

He'd made it to Henderson, New York, before a storm forced a crash landing. Still, he'd flown over 800 miles. No one flew farther than that until this century. But he lost the mail in the crash.

Wise passionately believed in long-range ballooning. He wanted to try a transatlantic flight. Two years later, he would help the Union Army develop observation balloons for the Civil War. He would keep on ballooning until he was 71, and finally die when a storm drove his balloon into Lake Michigan.

Now, in 1859, Wise readied his airship Jupiter for a new try at delivering mail from Lafayette to New York City. Lafayette had recently grown up from a frontier town into a mid-west center, and it lay right on the path of the Westerlies to New York.

One industry that Hoosiers were trying to develop was winemaking. And a young chemist named Charles Wetherill had gone there to study grapes. Wetherill was also interested in high-altitude chemistry. He wanted Wise to make measurements for him, and he could provide a gas generator to fill Wise's balloon.

So Wise set off to measure ozone and deliver mail. Writer Miriam Andrews shows us an old a photo of the balloon, ready to lift off. It blocks our view of a four-story building. There's a huge crowd -- people, ricks, wagons. Here and there movement has left blurry streaks on the primitive time exposure.

At 2:00 PM he rose into the sky carrying apparatus and 123 official stamped letters. It was 91 degrees -- not a breath of air. He had to go 14,000 feet to find wind, and that used up his ballast sand. He finally he had to put down only 30 miles from Lafayette. So he gave the mail to a passing train. It did get through, and it had done one leg of its journey in a balloon.

That first air mail delivery wasn't much of a success. We didn't get regular air mail for another 70 years. But look back at that photo for a moment -- half western movie set, half high tech where there'd been only prairie a few years before. We have air mail service today just because of brave efforts like this. Air mail really did begin 135 years ago -- in Lafayette, Indiana.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Andrews, M., America's First Air Mail, American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Summer 1993, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 24-25.

Rolt, L.T.C., The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783-1903, New York: Walker and Company, 1966.

See also Dictionary of National Biography entries for John Wise and Charles Mayer Wetherill.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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