"Smithsonian" Balloon Ascends




Date: May 1859


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Pioneer American balloonist John Wise launches a balloon named the "Smithsonian" carrying equipment provided by first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. During prior balloon ascents, Wise had made meteorological observations that he conveyed to Henry, who in turn informed other meteorologists of Wise's findings. Although Henry is skeptical of Wise's theory that "a sufficient quantity of [atmospheric] electricity for practical purposes could be obtained" and delivered to earth via a wire suspended from a balloon, he outfits the balloon with "gas, conductors, ropes and meteorological instruments." During the ascension, Wise observes the development of a thundercloud. Subsequent experiments never occur because of Wise's preparations for a transatlantic balloon voyage, Henry's preoccupation with Smithsonian business, and the coming of the Civil War.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Wise, John 1808-1879


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Bust portrait of the noted American aeronaut, John Wise, by Mora photographer, date unknown. From the Krainik Ballooning Collection, National Air and Space Museum Archives, image number NASM-7A47252.
  • Rothenberg, Marc, et al, eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858-December 1865: The Smithsonian Years. Washington, D.C.: Science History Publications, 2004, p. 16.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


May 1859


  • Balloons (Aircraft)
  • Electricity
  • Secretaries
  • Aeronautics
  • Science
  • Experiments
  • Meteorology
  • Atmospheric electricity
  • Balloons
  • Research
  • Science--Experiments


United States

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