CHAPTER VIII. JOHN WISE - THE AMERICAN AERONAUT.
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 ex hibitions, 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.