This Day in History – August 17th, 1859

On this day 155 years ago, Jupiter was about to rise in the air and make history. On this occasion Jupiter was the name of a hot air balloon, and its pilot was John Wise. Its point of departure was Lafayette, Indiana, and its destination was New York City; its cargo, 123 letters to be delivered for the U.S. Postal Service. This was the very first U.S. airmail.


It was not the first airmail flight in the world, carrier pigeons had been used for many years, and in 1785 a balloon flight from Dover, England, to Calais, France, had carried mail, but Wise’s flight was also an attempt to set a new record for longest balloon flight. The weather, however, was against him, blowing southwest rather than east. This did not deter 51-year-old Wise who went up anyway.

Wise manage to travel 30 miles before he aborted the mission and came back back down to ground in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Despite a train taking the mail the rest of the way to New York, it had gone partially by air, making it the first U.S airmail, but that did not stop the local press from mocking the effort. A month later, Wise tried again. This time he made it as far as Henderson, New York — flying nearly 800 miles. A storm forced a crash landing, and he lost the mail in the crash.

The first airmail flight in an airplane took place half-a-century later, when three letters were carried a few miles between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California, in February 1911.

A piece of mail from Wise’s first flight has survived over the decades and now resides at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. The letter bearing a 3-cent stamp (about 80 cents in today’s buying power) was sent to the address: “W H Munn, No. 24 West 26 St., N York City.”

John Wise continued to take to the air. He flew observation balloons for the Union Army during the Civil War. He died in 1879 at 71, when a storm pushed his balloon into Lake Michigan.


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