Scholla: A Berks Aeronaut

A Berks Aeronaut – 1881

The flying of heavier than aircraft is largely a 20th century development, but the sailing of balloons was experimented for centuries before our times. As early 1851 John Weiss, a Philadelphian, rose in his hydrogen-gas filled balloon from the public square of Kutztown in Berks County and amazed the multitudes which had gathered to witness the feat. In 1879 Weiss met his death during an ascent made in St. Louis.

Professor John N. Shearer, a native of Reading began to give public demonstrations of the buoyancy of his gas-chambered balloon the “Ariel” early in 1881. The Reading Fair, September 1881, advertised as balloon ascent by Professor Shearer as one of the feature attractions. Advance announcement s stated that he ahd made 35 successful flights; that 16,000 feet of gas were required to fill the chamber of the “Ariel; that ship was lined with oiled cambric ‘thoroughly durable and safe.’ It was announced that he would lift his ship to a height of eight or ten thousand feet and sail eight or ten miles. On Wednesday September 28, the aeronaut was busy filling his gas chamber in preparation for the flight of the next day, the “big day” of the Reading Fair.

Strong winds blew across the old Reading Fair grounds during the early afternoon of the “Big Day”. The balloon tugged at its moorings the flight was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. but Professor Shearer feared that the craft would not remain fastened to the earth until that hour. With the permission of the fair officers he had his ship cut loose at 3 p.m. Higher and higher the pear-shaped asteroid soared. Thousands of eyes followed its course as it sailed in a northwesterly direction, then veered to the southwest, passed over the city of Reading and was lost to view while appearing to sail into the Lebanon Valley.

Where was Professor Shearer? Where was the Ariel?  Anxiety shrouded the late afternoon and eveing for all the fair-goers. Late that night C.S. Birch, the proprietor of the American House received a telegram from Philadelphia. Shearer had landed near Belmont Mansion, on the outskirts of the great city. Due to high winds a valve rope had become entangled in the ship’s netting and the balloon was the mercy of the air currents.

In those days the Kutztown Fair was held during the first week of October. Professor Shearer was inveited to repeat his performance on the “Big Day” at Kutztwon and he accepted. For some reason, unknown to us, the balloon was advertised as the “Comet” by the Kutztown fair officials. Did Shearer own two gas-bags?

The Kutztown folks were disappointed however when the time arrived for the ascent. This time Shearer did not risk the elements.

Archival Notes: A cursory search of the Reading TImes revealed other incidents that John N. Shearer encountered during his aerial exploits. An article published on October 2, 1875 told of an incident at Orwigsburg, PA. During the ascension a man became entangled in a rope which hoisted him 8 feet in the air before he freed himself. During that rapid series of events the man received a broken leg. It was stated that the balloon proceeded to reach a height of 200 feet, luckily the unfortunate hitchhiker returned to earth when he did.

Across the county border in Lancaster was born one America’s pioneers of aeronautics John Wise. John Wise delivered the first “air mail”, on August 17, 1859 from Lafayette, Indiana to Crawfordsville, Indiana. One envelop is known to survive till this day from that maiden voyage.

Picture of America's first "air mail" in a balloon piloted by John Wise.
Picture of America’s first “air mail” in a balloon piloted by John Wise.

Scholla: The Transit of Venus 1769 June 27, 1941

Scholla: The Transit of Venus-1769 6/27/1941

David Rittenhouse, the first American astronomer, was a man of many parts. In 1760 he surveyed the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland with crude instruments which he devised. When Mason and Dixon established their famous line in 1763, they found that the previous surveys by Rittenhouse were correct in every detail. In 1794 Rittenhouse accompanied President Washington and other distinguished men in a journey into Berks and Lebanon Counties. It was he who made the original surveys for the Union Canal which followed the Tulpehocken creek through western Berks and joined with the Schuykill near Reading.

Among the great achievements of the colonial astronomer was the construction of an instrument with which to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. This astronomical event occurs at rare intervals. There has been only one transit since 1769, when Rittenhouse made his observations, and the next phenomena is scheduled to take place in the year 2012.

The importance of securing these observations may be understood if we keep in mind that in 1769 a transit of the planet Venus furnished the most accurate method for measuring the distance from the earth to the sun in terms of miles, and that distance served as the yardstick which the size of all planets was measured. If this data had not been made available in 1769 the world would have been forced to wait until the next transit, in 1882, to learn these vital facts. There were several observers in Europe who made diligent preparations to record the event of two centuries ago, but it happened that June 3, 1769 was overcast in Europe and scholars there had no chance to make their observations.

The weather was perfect in Pennsylvania and conditions were ideal for the task to which Rittenhouse and his associates had set themselves. With the instrument which he had made with his own hands the astronomer made his observations at his home in Norriton, near Philadelphia. It is recorded that when the great task was completed and known to be successful Rittenhouse swooned away. So great was his relief after weeks of planning and anxiety.

The undertaking was sponsored by the American Philosophical Society. Three observation stations were set up. In addition to the one at Norriton observers were placed at the State House (Independence Hall) and in Lewes Delaware. The instrument which Rittenhouse made and used to such great  advantage is now on exhibit in the rooms of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

“Astronomers are greater men than politicians” said Thomas Jefferson in a tribute to Rittenhouse “because they find new worlds while politicians find only new governments.”

Graeff, Arthur D. Scholla: Transit of Venus 1769. Reading Times. June 27, 1941

David Rittenhouse
David Rittenhouse
The house which David Rittenhouse observed the transit of Venus from the lawn.
The house which David Rittenhouse observed the transit of Venus from the lawn.
David Rittenhouse's diagram of the transit of Venus.
David Rittenhouse’s diagram of the transit of Venus.
Picture of 2012 transit by NASA. Venus is the black dot in the upper right quadrant of the photo.
Picture of 2012 transit by NASA. Venus is the black dot in the upper right quadrant of the photo.