early balloon flights in the USA
Compared to Europe, ballooning was slow to develop in the United States
even though respected Americans such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas
Jefferson told the American public about the aeronautical developments in
Europe. False reports in the U.S. press of flights probably contributed to
the public's disinterest and scepticism. For instance, the New York Sun
had reported that an Irish balloon enthusiast, Monck Mason, and his
companions had landed in South Carolina after ballooning across the
Atlantic Ocean. The article turned out to be a hoax. Another published
account, which described a flight by James Wilcox in Philadelphia that
reputedly had occurred on December 28, 1783, also was false.
Although Peter Carnes flew a number of tethered flights in Bladensburg,
Maryland in June 1784, the first real balloon flight in the United States
did not occur until the Frenchman François
Blanchard ascended from the yard of the Washington Prison in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 9, 1793. That day, President George
Washington, the French ambassador, and a crowd of onlookers watched
Blanchard ascend to about 5,800 feet (1,768 meters). He then drifted to a
landing in Gloucester County, New Jersey. It was Blanchard's 45th
The first free balloon ascent in the United States by Jean Pierre François
Blanchard carried the first piece of airmail with him, a "passport"
presented by President Washington that directed "all citizens of the
United States, and others, that…they oppose no hindrance…to the said Mr.
Blanchard" and help in his efforts to "establish and advance an art, in
order to make it useful to mankind in general."
Blanchard's flight was successful, and he planned a second flight. But he
couldn't pay off his debt from his first flight and raise enough funds to
cover his new expenses. He tried raising money by charging to fly small
tethered balloons with animal passengers in them that were attached to
parachutes. A fuse would release the parachutes automatically and the
animals would float back to earth. The income generated by this scheme was
still insufficient, however, for his needs. After a few more efforts to
raise money, he returned to France in May 1797.
first successful American aeronaut was Charles Ferson Durant. On September
9, 1830, he made his first ascent from New York's Castle Garden. He was
the first person to drop leaflets from the sky, scattering copies of poems
he wrote that told of the joys of flight.
in Europe, ballooning in the United States became a regular form of
entertainment at fairs and celebrations. The foremost American aeronauts
were Durant, John Wise, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, John LaMountain, and Rufus Wells. The public
referred to them as "professors." Wise often dropped cats or dogs in
parachutes from his balloons. Sometimes, Wise permitted his balloon to
burst and serve as a parachute to lower him to the ground. He also
invented the ripping panel on the balloon.
Atlantic Ocean presented an ongoing challenge to American aeronauts. Wise
tried for more than ten years to raise funds for a balloon flight to
Europe. He finally succeeded in 1859 when O.A. Gager, a wealthy balloon
enthusiast, financed the building of the 50,000-cubic-foot (1,416
cubic-meter) Atlantic, which had a lifeboat suspended beneath it.
On July 2, 1859, Wise, LaMountain, Gager, and a reporter left St. Louis
and flew 809 miles (1,302 kilometres) in this balloon to Henderson in
Jefferson County, New York. The flight, which lasted 19 hours 50 minutes,
was threatened by a violent storm that almost drove them into Lake
Ontario. Wisely, the aeronauts, instead of relying on their lifeboat, cut
it adrift and gained the additional lift they needed. Wise also jettisoned
a bag of mail consigned to the group by the United States Express Company.
This was the earliest airmail delivery in the United States. The flight
established an official world distance record for non-stop air flight that
would stand until 1910.
O.A. Gager, John La Mountain, and John Wise
attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in this balloon. They made it as far
as Jefferson County, New York, 809 miles from their starting point in St.
John Wise, John La Mountain, and Thaddeus Lowe
fight a storm in the Atlantic
After that flight, LaMountain took possession of the damaged Atlantic
and repaired it in anticipation of another flight. In September 1859, with
John Haddock, editor of the Watertown, New York Reformer,
LaMountain ascended from Watertown in what was billed as a "short
experimental flight." However, winds blew the balloon into Canada where
the two were stranded in the wilderness for four days without food or
adequate clothing until they reached shelter. LaMountain's next foray into
ballooning would be in the
U.S. Civil War.
American aeronaut John La Mountain
Lowe, who would also use balloons during the Civil War, had the urge to
cross the Atlantic Ocean by balloon too. He built the Great Western
for that purpose but could not get enough gas to inflate it in New York.
He took the balloon to Philadelphia to be inflated. He departed from there
on June 28, 1860, on a short test flight, landing on the sand flats of New
Lowe had planned his ocean voyage for September 8, 1860. Unfortunately,
shortly before his planned departure, a sudden wind squall burst and
completely destroyed his balloon. Lowe persevered, however. He decided to
follow the advice of Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution, and begin with a trial flight in the Midwest to take
advantage of the air currents coming from the west. He left Cincinnati,
Ohio, on April 20, 1861, in the Enterprise, but the winds carried
him into South Carolina where he received a hostile reception from the
local people. He took off again immediately, but his second landing was
equally inhospitable and he was jailed. A co-balloonist procured his
release, but he was soon arrested again as a Yankee spy. With the onset of
the U.S. Civil War, he put thoughts of an Atlantic voyage aside and joined
the Union army, which may have saved him from drowning in the Atlantic.
Ballooning revived after the Civil War, and a new generation of aeronauts
emerged who were also caught up with the idea of crossing the Atlantic. It
was veteran aeronaut John Wise, however, who managed to secure financing
for the venture and build the Daily Graphic, a two-story balloon
with a capacity of 600,000 cubic feet (16,990 cubic meters). John Wise and
Washington Harrison Donaldson were both parties to and signatories on the
contract with The Daily Graphic's publishers, not only John Wise. But he
withdrew from the venture because of a dispute with his sponsors and was
replaced by his partner W.H. Donaldson, who had performed stunts and
acrobatic feats in balloons. Donaldson departed on October 6, 1973, but
his attempt was unsuccessful and he landed in the Catskill Mountains in
New York, damaging his balloon irretrievably. The balloon in which
Donaldson made his attempt was the New Graphic, not the Daily Graphic; he
ascended on October 7, 1873, not on "October 6, 1973"; he landed at New
Canaan, Connecticut, not in the "Catskill Mountains in New York." He
disappeared on another flight two years later when he was forced into Lake
Michigan during a storm. Wise also perished in Lake Michigan on September
There was one more attempt to cross the Atlantic during this era. Samuel
King who had made 480 ascensions during his very long career left from
Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 16, 1881. Unfortunately, the wind was
blowing the wrong way, and King and his companions landed only a short
distance from their starting point.