Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe is one of those people that, by his accomplishments, everyone should know, but that somehow has been almost forgotten. He was born in northern New Hampshire in 1832, and at the age of 18, went with his younger brother to a traveling lecture and demonstration about lighter-than-air gases by one Professor Reginald Dinkelhoff. When the esteemed Professor asked for a volunteer from the audience, Lowe jumped up, impressing the lecturer sufficiently to offer him a job as his assistant. When the Professor retired a few years later, Lowe bought the show—and the title Professor of Chemistry—from him and continued working the lecture circuit.
After a while, he began experimenting with building lighter-than-air balloons, and incorporated them into the act, offering rides to passengers at county fairs and the like. Imagine the excitement of a rural New England farmer of the late 1850s at being able to rise into the air tethered by only a thin rope to the ground.
I’m always somehow reminded of Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz at this point in Lowe’s story.
Thaddeus Lowe’s ambitions extended beyond giving rides to locals, however. He dreamed of larger balloons that could fly untethered for many miles, in fact, many hundreds of miles. He designed a balloon, the City of New York, which was meant to be capable of flying from its namesake city across the Atlantic. The City of New York was massive, 103 feet in diameter, and carried an 8-man gondola from which was suspended a lifeboat, in the perhaps not-so-unlikely event of a water landing.
Unfortunately, the balloon never flew. On its first attempt, the gas company could not provide a sufficient volume of gas to inflate the envelope. The Chairman of the Board of the Philadelphia gas company wrote promising sufficient gas, if Lowe would launch the trans-Atlantic attempt from his city. The balloon, now renamed the Great Western, was inflated, but was torn open by a gust of wind. A subsequent attempt after repairs also failed.
The next spring, Lowe again attempted a long-distance flight. Starting from Cincinnati this time in a smaller 35-foot diameter balloon, Enterprise, Lowe took off in the middle of the night aiming to land in Washington, DC. The balloon soon caught what we now know of as the jet stream and rose to heights of up to 20,000 feet. Lowe flew through the night and in the morning landed near Unionville, South Carolina having traveled over 600 miles. Unfortunately, the locals had never seen such a thing as a balloon before, and he was briefly detained as a Yankee spy, Virginia having seceded from the Union two days previously. After his identity was vouched for, he was allowed to return to Cincinnati with Enterprise packed up in cases. Needless to say, the impending Civil War put a stop to Lowe’s dreams of Transatlantic balloon travel.
But it did not end his belief that balloons could serve a useful purpose. Upon arriving back in Ohio, he left immediately for Washington, DC, hoping to convince officials that a tethered balloon could be used as a reconnaissance post to observe Confederate troop movements. He met with President Lincoln and proposed a test flight of Enterprise as a demonstration. For this, Lowe had the balloon equipped with a telegraph apparatus connected to the ground by a cable that ran along the tether. On June 16, 1861, the balloon rose from the grounds of the Columbia Armory just off the National Mall and close by to a gasworks. From a height of 500 feet with all of Washington laid out before him, Lowe telegraphed to the President,
This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.
It is one of those improbable coincidences of history that the grounds of the old Columbia Armory is now the site of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Lincoln was impressed. He and Lowe met late into the night discussing how balloons could be put to use for the Union cause. Lincoln shot off an order to General Winfield Scott to meet with Lowe. Thus began the Union Army Balloon Corps with Thaddeus Lowe appointed Chief Aeronaut.
Equipped with portable gas generators designed by Lowe, the balloon corps expanded to seven balloons, and served usefully at the Battle of Bull Run as well as during the Peninsula Campaign. He even launched balloons from a converted coal barge at the Siege of Yorktown, making the barge the first aircraft carrier in history. However, political infighting amongst the Army generals and with the civilian Lowe eventually caused Lowe to resign as Chief Aeronaut, and the Balloon Corps folded soon afterward.
Thaddeus Lowe should be more well-known solely for these achievements, but there is another circumstance where he plays a crucial role, albeit a bit more tangentially. During the war, a young Prussian army officer, on leave as an military observer, visited the Balloon Corps camp. Lowe directed him to his assistant John Steiner who spoke German, and thus could answer his questions more easily. That young Prussian officer lurking around the camp was Ferdinand von Zeppelin. While Zeppelin’s airships were many in his future, it is clear that his interest was first primed by Lowe, especially since he returned to the US in the 1870s to meet and consult with Lowe further. Zeppelin began his first experiments with airships soon after, although serious development did not begin until his retirement from the military in 1890.
How might have history been changed if the young Count had returned to Germany and immediately started developing dirigibles? The many intra-German wars that led to a united German Empire might have worked out differently. The Franco-Prussian War surely would have. And if the war had gone even more wrongly for France than it did, would Britain have entered the war on France’s side to counter the growing German might? Not to mention that airship technology would have developed decades earlier. Many interesting questions result from this one simple tweak to history.
Some of these possibilities are entertained in my soon-to-be-published novel, To Rule the Skies which takes place in a world where Germany and Britain fought what became known the Air War in 1861 pitting the Zeppelin Luftshiffe against a newly developed British Air Service.
More coming soon!
A note here on a very informative website on Thaddeus Lowe organized by Lance S. Ferm, a great-great-grandson of Thaddeus Lowe. This site describes the full history of Lowe’s life and contributions as well as many family artifacts.