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
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
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
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