Lafayette, Ind., 1859. Credit: Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society
America’s fascination with ballooning in the 1850s
In 1859, balloons symbolized the future. It was to be a future of speed and efficiency made possible through advancements in science and technology. Though manned flight was almost 80 years old, it hadn’t changed the lives of everyday people.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Earlier in the 1800s, the average American thought of balloons as entertaining, but not practical. That was starting to change, as more "aeronauts"—what balloonists were called in the 19th century—began flying higher and farther, with the assistance of new scientific instruments. These aeronauts imagined that balloons could be useful as well as entertaining.
Finally, in August 1859, just a couple of years before the start of the Civil War, 20,000 people gathered in Lafayette, Ind., to witness a once in a lifetime event: the launch of the first successful airmail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. The delivery involved a giant, gas-filled balloon, John Wise, a scientific genius, and ultimately a railroad. Originally destined for New York City, the mammoth balloon was waylaid when winds blew in the wrong direction and then died down, stranding the balloon in Crawfordsville, Ind. The mail was ultimately delivered to New York City by train and the venture was deemed a success.
The 1859 balloon launch was the 19th-century equivalent of our 20th-century attempts to land a man on the moon. It reflected the hope and belief that man could and would triumph over the laws of nature. The enormous crowd—equal to nearly the entire population of Tippecanoe County, in which Lafayette is located and larger by far than the population of Indianapolis at the time—expected air mail delivery to be the first in a series of innovative improvements in daily life to be developed by 19th-century geniuses. They weren’t wrong. In the last half of the 19th century, inventors changed the world that settlers in 1836 Prairietown had known. Among other wonders, they harnessed gas for lighting, steam and electricity for power, and the telephone for communication.