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.