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Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I find it short sided that Joseph and Jaques Montegolfier’s saw their invention merely as an extension of the family paper business. Thus it was that at two o’clock in the afternoon of November 21st, 1783, the first humans - neither of whom was a Montegolfier - made humanities’ first free flight. The brother’s built an open fire on a barbeque in a wooden basket suspended beneath their colorfully painted paper balloon. Then, surrounded by stacks of kindling, in a vessel that was built of kindling, the two volunteer aeronauts, Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d’Arlenes, rose 500 feet above the Jardin du Chateau de la Muette outside of the palace of Vincennes. While the Montegolfiers were solidly grounded and accepting royal congratulations for their ingenuity, their two employees floated gently off toward Paris. The airborne pair had traversed some 5 miles before noticing their envelope was beginning to smolder and come apart at the seams. Desperately, Pilatre sacrificed his coat to smother the flames, and the cooling paper bag settled gently back to earth.
Meanwhile, back at the Chateau, a skeptical audience member asked, “What does Doctor Franklin conceive to be the use of this new invention?” And Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “What is the use of a new-born child?” He never explained his response. So I shall.
When he was fourteen John Wise built a working model of a Montegolfier hot air balloon in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When it landed on a neighbor’s roof, the open flame in the basket almost burned down his neighbor’s house. John’s father insisted that henceforth the boy limit himself to non-flammable kites and parachutes. In the long run this turned out to be an advantage.
John took a scientific approach to ballooning, so much so that he was generally refereed to as “The Professor”. He studied mathematics and parachutes. And it was not until May of 1835 that John became airborne himself for the first time when he undulated across nine miles of Pennsylvania farmland between Philadelphia and Hanover. He was so inflated by this success that he abandoned his career as a piano maker, and became a full time aerialist. And on July 24, 1837, when Robert Cocking became the first parachute fatality, John Wise was wise enough to realize that the problem was not the shape of Cocking’s parachute, but its 250 pound weight. The following year John invented a successful “rip panel” which, if pulled, would collapse a balloon’s envelope into a practical parachute, allowing a desperate aeronaut to float safely to ground.
On each flight, John made barometric readings, gauged wind speeds, and went high enough, often enough, that he was the first to suggest that there were great rivers of wind in the upper atmosphere, which would one day be called the Jet Stream. And being a dedicated balloonist, John also became expert in the manufacture of coal gas.
The process began by “cooking” coal in an airless oven, so it could not ignite. When the rock reached 2,000 degrees Celsius, all the water and aromatic hydrocarbons, the largest percentage of which was hydrogen, were driven off to be captured. Clearly the nomenclature was not intended to imply the stench of an “aromatic” hydrocarbon.
Now, the original goal of this process was the transformation of coal into coke, which was used to melt iron and steel without imparting any contaminates into them. But after this nifty bit of chemistry was completed the coke manufacturers were left with buckets of a stinking flammable semi-liquid substance called coal tar, and a stinking vaporous lighter than air substance called “coal gas”. Disposing of these vile and grotesque materials was both dangerous and expensive, so there was considerable motivation to find some profit in them.
In fact the search for profit from these waste products led directly to the entire field of organic chemistry, including the development of color dyes, explosives, fertilizers, even the creation of artificial rubber (plastics). Even today, most of what we call "organic chemistry" is realy petrochemicals. As part of that new science,  the noxious coal gas would eventually be renamed “Town Gas” because of its popularity as an economical source of street lighting. Even Ben Franklin in 1783 had no idea the paper balloon he saw rising over Vincennes would led to all of that chemistry -  any more than a 1960’s taxpayer could know that the Apollo Moon program would lead to a non-stick Teflon fry pan and the 21st century micro-chip computer that regulated the stove it was used on.  How could they? In the Lafayette, Indiana of 1960, for instance,  there was only one computer, and it occupied an entire floor in a building especially constructed to house it.  
A century earlier, Lafayette, Indiana was in many ways an average American town. It had a two story courthouse, a half dozen churches, a synagogue, two banks, three newspapers, several hotels, two breweries producing 4,000 bottle of beer a year, a bathhouse, a steam locomotive maintenance shop and businesses manufacturing everything from wagons, and farm machinery to bicycles, electric meters, steering gears, safes, and a meat packing plant. What made the town special was the Lafayette Gas Light Company, where coal was converted into town gas.
And it was because of the Lafayette Gas Works, and because the nationally respected chemist Charles Wetherill was in town to meet his new in-laws and to encourage the Hoosier wine industry, that history, and John Wise, paused in the village of 10,000 souls for a single monumentous moment. For “Professor "Wise was convinced, “…our children will travel to any part of the globe without the inconvenience of smoke, sparks, and sea-sickness, and at the rate of one hundred miles per hour.”
On Tuesday, August 16, 1859, next to the gas works at Forth and Union Streets in Lafayette, the fifty-one year old “Professor” John Wise began inflating his balloon with town gas.  Despite the large crowd gathered, estimated at 20,000, to witness the launch, a leaky value caused a 24 hour postponement. (an event which should be familiar to any who have watched a launch at Cape Kennedy.) So it was “precisely two o'clock the next afternoon (Wednesday, August 17, 1859) in the presence of a large number of citizens” that John’s gas bag finally rose into the sky.
John carried with him a number of scientific instruments, in order to conduct airborne experiments of the “ozone” for Mr. Wetherill. He also carried copies of the local newspapers, as well 123 letters consigned to him by the local postmaster, making this fight the first official “air mail” delivery attempt in the United States. All the mail was addressed to people in “New York City”. The likelihood of success was doubted by the Daily Courier; “The fact is, that the aerial ship "Jupiter" is about as well adapted to the navigation of the "upper current" as Mr. Wise is adapted to preach the gospel.”
The temperature was 94 degrees when the restraining ropes were released, and “The Jupiter” rushed straight upward, to an altitude of perhaps 12,000 feet. And there the gas bag hung in mid-air, fully visible to the townsfolk, suspended in a breathless sky. “Professor” Wise noted in his diary, ““My friends below wonder why I was not going on my voyage east. I thought so myself, but what can I do? Jupiter was full as a drum—no wind—not a breath!” After an hour of motionless hovering, Wise released 55 pounds of ballast, and the balloon rose to 15,000 feet, until the Wabash River was little more than “a crooked thread of water”. Still there was no discernable movement toward New York. That balloon envelope, John reported, was, “now quite flaccid in her lower hemisphere.” Finally, at 3:55 p.m., the barest breath of air began to move the Jupiter – south.
Forlorn and still sailing south, 25 miles later, “Professor” Wise floated over Crawfordsville, Indiana. With the sun setting, and not enough ballast left to compensate for the cooling of the gas with nightfall, Wise set the Jupiter down on the road, six miles south of Crawfordsville. As the Lafayette Courier explained, “So endeth the "trans-continental" voyage. That it was only trans-county-nental is no fault of the great Aeronaut.” The air mail was delivered to New York via the railroad. The deflation of spirits in Lafayette was attended to by Herbert’s brewery, and the town became, according to a local reporter, the scene of “a colossal drunk”. “Ever light pole had a lein on it”, wrote another newspaper humorist. Surely Doctor Franklin would have never foreseen that such a mass intoxication would be the result of his newborn child’s hesitant first steps.
The final act in this drama was perhaps easier to predict. John Wise was last seen alive on this earth suspended beneath yet another gas bag, at 11:14 p.m., on September 28, 1879, about 20 miles to the west of La Port, Indiana, headed north, out over lake Michigan. John had been accompanied on his last flight by a paying customer, Mr. George Burr, who was a cashier at the Bank of St. Louis, Missouri. Their flight had only been intended as a test, to last only a few moments. But the wires holding the balloon down were weak, the wind was up, and without adequate warning, the bag was pulled into the air, then blown across Illinois and Indiana, and then North over the chilly waters of the lake, giving passanger Burr more flight time than he had bargined for. A body assumed to his was washed ashore in Indiana several days later. But “Professor” Wise was never seen again, and was presumed dead.
But I am certain that old Ben Franklin could have predicted that tragedy, because he never risked his life in a balloon. He just sold them. Still, it was clear, that old Ben could recognize a revolution when he saw one, even if he could not imagine the details.
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  1. Hi Kimit. This is a neat write up! I presently am very involved with Imagination Station, Lafayette's Science Center for families, which is located at, more or less, the intersection of Union and Fourth. I'm trying to verify the location that John picked up his gas. If it was on our property it would make for a really neat exhibit to talk about it (probably would regardless). I'm having trouble verifying the location of Lafayette Gas Works. Can you tell me why you know it's at Union and Fourth? Do you know if it became Indiana Gas or was bought by Indiana Gas (they gave us the building)? Thanks.

  2. I believe the location was listed in an early city directory. I have not re-examined my research for over a year. And unfortunately don't have time to go back and recheck. I assume the gas went directly from the plant to the balloon, as that would be the only safe way to do it it.
    Good luck with your exhibit. It would seen logical to use the same building. Have you examined the basement, looking for structural evidence of age. There have been a few floods and the old buildings might have been damaged enough to be removed. But the address would probably be the same. Town's tend to not encourage changes in commercial zones. And I can remember the old gas works from the late 1950's in that area. Kimit


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