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   Chapter 8 JOHN WISE—THE AMERICAN AERONAUT.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 19619

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


By this period the domination of the air was being pursued in a fresh part of the world. England and her Continental neighbours had vied with each in adding to the roll of conquests, and it could hardly other be supposed that America would stand by without taking part in the campaign which was now being revived with so much fresh energy in the skies.

The American champion who stepped forward was Mr. John Wise, of Lancaster, Pa., whose career, commencing in the year 1835, we must now for a while follow. Few attempts at ballooning of any kind had up to that time been made in all America. There is a record that in December, 1783, Messrs. Rittenhouse and Hopkins, Members of the Philosophical Academy of Philadelphia, instituted experiments with an aerial machine consisting of a cage to which forty-seven small balloons were harnessed. In this strange craft a carpenter, by name Wilcox, was induced to ascend, which, it is said, he did successfully, remaining in the air for ten minutes, when, finding himself near a river, he sought to come to earth again by opening several of his balloons. This brought about an awkward descent, attended, however, by no more serious accident than a dislocated wrist. Mr. Wise, on the other hand, states that Blanchard had won the distinction of making the first ascent in the New World in 1793 in Philadelphia on which occasion Washington was a spectator; and a few years afterwards other Frenchmen gave exhibitions, which, however, led to no real development of the new art on this, the further side of the Atlantic. Thus the endeavours we are about to describe were those of an independent and, at the same time, highly, practical experimentalist, and on this account have a special value of their own.

The records that Wise has left of his investigations begin at the earliest stage, and possess the charm of an obvious and somewhat quaint reality. They commence with certain crude calculations which would seem to place no limit to the capabilities of a balloon. Thus, he points out that one of "the very moderate size of 400 feet diameter" would convey 13,000 men. "No wonder, then," he continues, "the citizens of London became alarmed during the French War, when they mistook the appearance of a vast flock of birds coming towards the Metropolis for Napoleon's army apparently coming down upon them with this new contrivance."

Proceeding to practical measures, Wise's first care was to procure some proper material of which to build an experimental balloon of sufficient size to lift and convey himself alone. For this he chose ordinary long-cloth, rendered gas-tight by coats of suitable varnish, the preparation of which became with him, as, indeed, it remains to this day, a problem of chief importance and difficulty. Perhaps it hardly needs pointing out that the varnish of a balloon must not only be sufficiently elastic not to crack or scale off with folding or unavoidable rough usage, but it must also be of a nature to resist the common tendency of such substances to become adherent or "tacky." Wise determined on bird lime thinned with linseed oil and ordinary driers. With this preparation he coated his material several times both before and after the making up, and having procured a net, of which he speaks with pride, and a primitive sort of car, of which he bitterly complains, he thought himself sufficiently equipped to embark on an actual ascent, which he found a task of much greater practical difficulty than the mere manufacture of his air ship. For the inflation by hydrogen of so small a balloon as his was he made more than ample provision in procuring no less than fifteen casks of 130 gallons capacity each. He also duly secured a suitable filling ground at the corner of Ninth and Green Streets, Philadelphia, but he made a miscalculation as to the time the inflation would demand, and this led to unforeseen complications, for as yet he knew not the way of a crowd which comes to witness a balloon ascent.

Having all things in readiness, and prudently waiting for fair weather, he embarked on his grand experiment on the 2nd of May, 1835, announcing 4 p.m. as the hour of departure. But by that time the inflation, having only proceeded for three hours, the balloon was but half full, and then the populace began to behave as in such circumstances they always will. They were incredulous, and presently grew troublesome. In vain the harnessing of the car was proceeded with as though all were well. For all was not well, and when the aeronaut stepped into his car with only fifteen pounds of sand and a few instruments he must have done so with much misgiving. Still, he had friends around who might have been useful had they been less eager to help. But these simply crowded round him, giving him no elbow room, nor opportunity for trying the "lift" of his all-too-empty globe. Moreover, some would endeavour to throw the machine upward, while others as strenuously strove to keep it down, and at last the former party prevailed, and the balloon, being fairly cast into the air, grazed a neighbouring chimney and then plunged into an adjacent plot, not, however, before the distracted traveller had flung away all his little stock of sand. There now was brief opportunity for free action, and to the first bystander who came running up Wise gave the task of holding the car in check. To the next he handed out his instruments, his coat, and also his boots, hoping thus to get away; but his chance had not yet come, for once again the crowd swarmed round him, keeping him prisoner with good-natured but mistaken interference, and drowning his voice with excited shouting. Somehow, by word and gesture, he gave his persecutors to understand that he wished to speak, and then he begged them only to give him a chance, whereupon the crowd fell back, forming a ring, and leaving only one man holding the car. It was a moment of suspense, for Wise calculated that he had only parted with some eighteen pounds since his first ineffectual start from the filling ground; but it was enough, and in another moment he was sailing up clear above the crowd. So great, as has been already shewn, is often the effect of parting with the last few pounds of dead weight in a well-balanced balloon.

Such was the first "send off" of the future great balloonist, destined to become the pioneer in aeronautics on the far side of the Atlantic. The balloon ascended to upwards of a mile, floating gradually away, but at its highest point it reached a conflict of currents, causing eddies from which Wise escaped by a slight decrease of weight, effected by merely cutting away the wreaths of flowers that were tied about his car. A further small substitute for ballast he extemporised in the metal tube inserted in the neck of his fabric, and this he cast out when over the breadth of the Delaware, and he describes it as falling with a rustling sound, and striking the water with a splash plainly heard at more than a mile in the sky. After an hour and a quarter the balloon spontaneously and steadily settled to earth.

An ascent carried out later in the same summer led to a mishap, which taught the young aeronaut an all-important lesson. Using the same balloon and the same mode of inflation, he got safely and satisfactorily away from his station in the town of Lebanon, Pa., and soon found himself over a toll gate in the open country, where the gate keeper in banter called up to him for his due. To this summons Wise, with heedless alacrity, responded in a manner which might well have cost him dear. He threw out a bag of sand to represent his toll, and, though he estimated this at only six pounds, it so greatly accelerated his ascent that he shortly found himself at a greater altitude than he ever after attained. He passed through mist into upper sunshine, where he experienced extreme cold and ear-ache, at which time, seeking the natural escape from such trouble, he found to his dismay that the valve rope was out of reach. Thus he was compelled to allow the balloon to ascend yet higher, at its own will; and then a terrible event happened.

By mischance the neck of his balloon, which should have been open, was out of reach and folded inwards in such a way as to prevent the free escape of the gas, which, at this great altitude, struggled for egress with a loud humming noise, giving him apprehensions of an accident which very shortly occurred, namely, the bursting of the lower part of his balloon with a loud report. It happened, however, that no extreme loss of gas ensued, and he commenced descending with a speed which, though considerable, was not very excessive. Still, he was eager to alight in safety, until a chance occurrence made him a second time that afternoon guilty of an act of boyish impetuosity. A party of volunteers firing a salute in his honour as he neared the ground, he instantly flung out papers, ballast, anything he could lay his hands on, and once again soared to a great height with his damaged balloon. He could then do no more, and presently subsiding to earth again, he acquired the welcome knowledge that even in such precarious circumstances a balloon may make a long fall with safety to its freight.

Mr. Wise's zeal and indomitable spirit of enterprise led to speedy developments of the art which he had espoused; the road to success being frequently pointed out by failure or mishap. He quickly discarded the linen balloon for one of silk on which he tried a new varnish composed of linseed oil and india-rubber, and, dressing several gores with this, he rolled them up and left them through a night in a drying loft, with the result that the next day they were disintegrated and on the point of bursting into flame by spontaneous combustion. Fresh silk and other varnish

were then tried, but with indifferent success. Next he endeavoured to dispense with sewing, and united the gores of yet another balloon by the mere adhesiveness of the varnish and application of a hot iron. This led to a gaping seam developing at the moment of an ascent, and then there followed a hasty and hazardous descent on a house-top and an exciting rescue by a gentleman who appeared opportunely at a third storey window. Further, another balloon had been destroyed, and Wise badly burned, at a descent, owing to a naked light having been brought near the escaping gas. It is then without wonder that we find him after this temporarily bankrupt, and resorting to his skill in instrument-making to recover his fortunes. Only, however, for a few months, after which he is before the public once more as a professional aeronaut. He now adopts coal gas for inflation, and incidents of an impressive nature crowd into his career, forcing important facts upon him. The special characteristics of his own country present peculiar difficulties; broad rivers and vast forests become serious obstacles. He is caught in the embrace of a whirlwind; he narrowly escapes falling into a forest fire; he is precipitated, but harmlessly, into a pine wood. Among other experiments, he makes a small copy of Mr. Cocking's parachute, and drops it to earth with a cat as passenger, proving thereby that that unfortunate gentleman's principle was really less in fault than the actual slenderness of the material used in his machine.

We now approach one of Wise's boldest, and at the same time most valuable, experiments. It was the summer of 1839, and once again the old trouble of spontaneous combustion had destroyed a silk balloon which was to have ascended at Easton, Pa. Undeterred, however, Wise resolutely advertised a fresh attempt, and, with only a clear month before the engagement, determined on hastily rigging up a cambric muslin balloon, soaking it in linseed oil and essaying the best exhibition that this improvised experiment could afford. It was intended to become a memorable one, inasmuch as, should he meet with no hindrance, his determination was nothing less than that of bursting this balloon at a great height, having firmly convinced himself that the machine in these circumstances would form itself into a natural parachute, and bring him to earth with every chance in favour of safety. In his own words, "Scientific calculations were on his side with a certainty as great and principles as comprehensive as that a pocket-handkerchief will not fall as rapidly to the ground when thrown out of a third storey window as will a brick."

His balloon was specially contrived for the experiment in hand, having cords sewn to the upper parts of its seams, and then led down through the neck, where they were secured within reach, their office being that of rending the whole head of the balloon should this be desired. On this occasion a cat and a dog were taken up, one of these being let fall from a height of 2,000 feet in a Cocking's parachute, and landing in safety, the other being similarly dismissed at an altitude of 4,000 feet in an oiled silk balloon made in the form of a collapsed balloon, which, after falling a little distance, expanded sufficiently to allow of its descending with a safe though somewhat vibratory motion. Its behaviour, at any rate, fully determined Wise on carrying out his own experiment.

Being constructed entirely for the main object in view, the balloon had no true opening in the neck beyond an orifice of about an inch, and by the time a height of 13,000 feet had been reached the gas was streaming violently through this small hole, the entire globe being expanded nearly to bursting point, and the cords designed for rending the balloon very tense. At this critical period Wise owns to having experienced considerable nervous excitement, and observing far down a thunderstorm in progress he began to waver in his mind, and inclined towards relieving the balloon of its strain, and so abandoning his experiment, at least for the present. He remembers pulling out his watch to make a note of the hour, and, while thus occupied, the straining cords, growing tenser every moment, suddenly took charge of the experiment and burst the balloon of their own accord. The gas now rushed from the huge rent above tumultuously and in some ten seconds had entirely escaped, causing the balloon to descend rapidly, until the lower part of the muslin, doubling in upwards, formed a species of parachute after the manner intended. The balloon now came down with zig-zag descent, and finally the car, striking the earth obliquely, tossed its occupant out into a field unharmed. Shortly after this Wise experimented with further success with an exploded balloon.

It is not a little remarkable that this pioneer of aeronautics in American-a contemporary of Charles Green in England, but working and investigating single-handed on perfectly independent lines-should have arrived at the same conclusions as did Green himself as to the possibility, which, in his opinion, amounted to a certainty, of being able to cross the Atlantic by balloon if only adequate funds were forth-coming. So intent was he on his bold scheme that, in the summer of 1843, he handed to the Lancaster Intelligencer a proclamation, which he desired might be conveyed to all publishers of newspapers on the globe. It contained, among other clauses, the following:-

"Having from a long experience in aeronautics been convinced that a constant and regular current of air is blowing at all times from west to east, with a velocity of from twenty to forty and even sixty miles per hour, according to its height from the earth, and having discovered a composition which renders silk or muslin impervious to hydrogen gas, so that a balloon may be kept afloat for many weeks, I feel confident with these advantages that a trip across the Atlantic will not be attended with as much real danger as by the common mode of transition. The balloon is to be 100 feet in diameter, giving it a net ascending power of 25,000 lbs." It was further stated that the crew would consist of three persons, including a sea navigator, and a scientific landsman. The specifications for the transatlantic vessel were also to include a seaworthy boat in place of the ordinary car. The sum requisite for this enterprise was, at the time, not realised; but it should be mentioned that several years later a sufficient sum of money was actually subscribed. In the summer of 1873 the proprietors of the New York Daily Graphic provided for the construction of a balloon of no less than 400,000 cubic feet capacity, and calculated to lift 14,000 lbs. It was, however, made of bad material; and, becoming torn in inflation, Wise condemned and declined to use it. A few months later, when it had been repaired, one Donaldson and two other adventurers, attempting a voyage with this ill-formed monster, ascended from New York, and were fortunate in coming down safely, though not without peril, somewhere in Connecticut.

Failing in his grand endeavour, Wise continued to follow the career of a professional aeronaut for some years longer, of which he has left a full record, terminating with the spring of 1848. His ascents were always marked by carefulness of detail, and a coolness and courage in trying circumstances that secured him uniform success and universal regard. He was, moreover, always a close and intelligent observer, and many of his memoranda are of scientific value.

His description of an encounter with a storm-cloud in the June of 1843 has an interest of its own, and may not be considered overdrawn. It was an ascent from Carlisle, Pa., to celebrate the anniversary of Bunker's Hill, and Wise was anxious to gratify the large concourse of people assembled, and thus was tempted, soon after leaving the ground, to dive up into a huge black cloud of peculiarly forbidding aspect. This cloud appeared to remain stationary while he swept beneath it, and, having reached its central position, he observed that its under surface was concave towards the earth, and at that moment he became swept upwards in a vortex that set his balloon spinning and swinging violently, while he himself was afflicted with violent nausea and a feeling of suffocation. The cold experienced now became intense, and the cordage became glazed with ice, yet this had no effect in checking the upward whirling of the balloon. Sunshine was beyond the upper limits of the cloud; but this was no sooner reached than the balloon, escaping from the uprush, plunged down several hundred feet, only to be whirled up again, and this reciprocal motion was repeated eight or ten times during an interval of twenty minutes, in all of which time no expenditure of gas or discharge of ballast enabled the aeronaut to regain any control over his vessel.

Statements concerning a thunderstorm witnessed at short range by Wise will compare with other accounts. The thunder "rattled" without any reverberations, and when the storm was passing, and some dense clouds moving in the upper currents, the "surface of the lower stratum swelled up suddenly like a boiling cauldron, which was immediately followed by the most brilliant ebullition of sparkling coruscations." Green, in his stormy ascent from Newbury, England, witnessed a thunderstorm below him, as will be remembered, while an upper cloud stratum lay at his own level. It was then that Green observed that "at every discharge of thunder all the detached pillars of clouds within the distance of a mile around became attracted."

The author will have occasion, in due place, to give personal experiences of an encounter with a thunderstorm which will compare with the foregoing description.

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