On April 20, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe left Cincinnati, OH, with plans to travel to Washington D.C. in the basket of a balloon he’d named the “Enterprise.” It was a test flight (and a calculated publicity stunt) towards what he hoped might eventually become an aerial journey across the Atlantic. Wearing a fancy silk hat and a long black overcoat more fitting of his earlier career as a part-time showman, the man called Professor T.S.C. Lowe was neither a professor nor a formally trained scientist, though he was self-taught in the fields of chemistry, meteorology, and aeronautics. It was barely 4 a.m. and the moon was still high overhead, but a large crowd had gathered to send him off.
In the preceding years, the American public followed his journey with keen interest, though the reports that appeared in the New York Times and other northern newspapers on Lowe’s efforts to cross the Atlantic weren’t without ridicule. On that fateful morning in 1861, Lowe took to the air amidst a chorus of applause from the spectators below. The launch was a resounding success. The journey, however, was another story. By that same evening, Lowe had inadvertently become the first prisoner of war in a national conflict that was then only eight days old.
Passenger balloons in the mid-19th century were more of a novelty as opposed to the scientific phenomenon they’d been decades earlier. In 1783, a tethered balloon above Versailles carried a trio of barn animals high over the heads of King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, and a crowd of 130,000 French citizens. Months later, French scientist Jean-Franíçois Pilâtre de Rozier was the first human to ascend in a balloon, and the first casualty. Three prominent American dignitaries were in Paris that year to negotiate the peace treaty that signified a formal end to the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were enthusiastic witnesses to the French ballooning experiments. Franklin relayed each new development to his network of scientific correspondents. Jay predicted that “travelers may hereafter literally pass from country to country on the wings of wind.” In November 1783, the Salem Gazette became the first American newspaper to report on the ballooning experiments. Just over a decade later, when the French were fighting their own revolution, the Corp d’Aerostiers conducted the first aerial reconnaissance from the baskets of their balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. The Corp remained an active component of the French military until it was disbanded four years later, and its successes were all but forgotten. A more recreational interest in ballooning remained, but sixty years passed before there was another major experiment in airborne battlefield reconnaissance.
Once airborne, a strong southwesterly wind posed the greatest obstacle to Thaddeus Lowe’s planned journey to Washington D.C. After twelve hours in the air, Lowe landed in rural Unionville, South Carolina, approximately 460 miles from his expected destination and right in the middle of the newly-formed Confederacy. Unfortunately for the New Hampshire native, there was no hiding the Yankee accent. Lowe was immediately seized and imprisoned on suspicions of being a Union spy. He was interrogated, which wasn’t altogether convincing one way or the other, until a local hotelkeeper recognized Lowe’s name and intervened on his behalf. Eventually, he was released, and local authorities wasted no time putting him and his balloon on a northbound train. That said, having cleared his name against charges of Union espionage, Lowe returned home only to leave again for Washington (traveling over land this time). Ironically, he had a mind to prove his particular skill set could be useful to the Union army in matters of espionage.
To earn himself an audience with President Lincoln, Lowe called on a connection with Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist and the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry served as President Lincoln’s scientific advisor during the Civil War. It was Henry who made the suggestion to Lincoln that Thaddeus Lowe be allowed to demonstrate the balloon’s potential for battlefield reconnaissance, and Henry who gave Lowe his stage. After a brief conversation, where Lowe reportedly regaled the only mildly intrigued President with stories of his aerial exploits, he put his balloon on display. Rising from what was then relatively undeveloped Smithsonian grounds, where today stands the National Air & Space Museum, Lowe ascended 500 feet into the air in the “Enterprise.” While hovering above the city, Lowe then sent a telegraph to the White House where he wrote, “This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter…I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station.” Within weeks, Lowe became “Chief Aeronaut” of the Union Army.
For two years, Thaddeus Lowe led a corps of military balloonists that spied on the Confederate army from the air. Confederate troops made numerous attempts to destroy the balloons using long range artillery missiles, and Lowe earned the moniker “the most shot at man” in the Union army. None of Lowe’s seven balloons were damaged or destroyed in combat. Under military contract, Lowe invented a portable hydrogen gas generator using dilute sulfuric acid and iron fillings with an accompanying inflation wagon to ensure the balloons weren’t dependent on city gas. Leather pipes connected the generators to the balloons. He invented a more advanced method to telegraph the ground from up in the air, and developed a system of signal flags to direct artillery fire to targets undetected by troops on the ground. The largest balloons in his fleet had a capacity of 32,000 cubic feet of lifting gas and could safety carry 5 people for an extended period.
In response, the Confederate army employed their own balloonists, though with lesser degrees of success. Military strategists in the United States and abroad took note of Lowe’s achievements. When the U.S. Army Balloon Corps disbanded in May 1863 over bureaucratic disagreements after military leadership changed, several European countries sought Lowe’s help in developing their own balloon corps. Curiously, Lowe declined all invitations, moved to California, and became a millionaire by revolutionizing the commercial freezing industry through the invention of artificial ice. Despite his eventual disinterest, Lowe’s impact was significant. Nearly every war in the latter half of the 19th century employed aerial recon balloonists. The British flew balloons over South Africa during the Second Boer War. Brazil launched balloons over Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance. In the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Rider’s famous charge up San Juan Hill was aided by balloon reconnaissance.
As for the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry’s actions cemented the institutional interest in aeronautics, which led to its eventual support of Samuel Pierpont Langley’s aerodynamic studies. Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian, and the founding Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In 1896, Langley’s research culminated in the successful flight of an aircraft for over half a mile along the Potomac, which generated considerable press coverage and inspired a written inquiry from a bicycle maker in Dayton, Ohio named Wilbur Wright.
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