T.S.C. Lowe: Founder of America’s Air Force

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Thaddeus S. C. Lowe

Aerial reconnaissance today is conducted from space, but the concept was developed during the American Civil War. T.S.C. Lowe was the premiere balloonist.

He came to be called “Professor” Lowe, but Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe (1832-1913) was largely a self-educated aeronaut. Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln appointed him chief of aeronautics for the Union Army in the early months of the Civil War. He served until 1863.

T.S.C. Lowe’s Early Life and Career

Born in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire, Lowe was a dreamy, imaginative boy. He experimented with kites and decided at an early age that he wanted to become an “aerostat” (balloonist).

After completing grade school, he joined a traveling magic show. While learning sleight-of-hand and larger illusions and acquiring a knack for showmanship, he devoted his reading time to books on chemistry.

Lowe started his own magic show at age 22. He subsequently married and settled in Philadelphia. He continued to learn everything he could about balloons and the science behind aeronautics. At 26, he had saved enough money to buy his first balloon.

His first public ascent was in Ottawa, Canada, in 1858, celebrating the laying of the Atlantic cable. He caught the attention of various event promoters and soon found himself booked well enough to earn a living as an aeronaut.

The 1858 Atlantic cable went dead after only three weeks, but it may have been the inspiration for Lowe’s early ambition to cross the Atlantic by air. His 1859 and 1860 attempts both ended quickly in failure.

The Civil War Goes Airborne

In April 1861, within a week after the start of the Civil War, Lowe flew almost a thousand miles from Ohio to South Carolina. When he touched down at Unionville, he temporarily was taken captive, suspected of spying for the North. Released, he returned home and offered his services to do exactly that. President Lincoln gave him his unique aeronautical post at a rank that equated to colonel in the Army.

Lowe immediately proved his worth, observing Confederate maneuvers just south of Washington. He was the first to communicate military intelligence from air to ground by telegraph. Soon, he was engaged in actual combat reconnaissance, reporting troop movements and directing artillery fire.

In time, Lowe commanded a fleet of seven balloons. Probably best-known among them were the Intrepid and Constitution. The Constitution was described as having a silk envelop, linen rigging, and a basket of willow with an iron floor to help protect the aeronaut from ground fire.

The Risks of Gas Balloons in Wartime

Hydrogen gas is quite flammable, and Lowe’s balloons were inflated with as much as 25,000 cubic feet of it. Fused shells, exploding in the air, were an ominous threat. The balloonist’s only defense was altitude. Cannon fire was effective only below 300 feet.

Although balloons were tethered, usually well away from enemy lines, aerial surveillance was dangerous work. Lowe has been called “the most shot-at man of the Civil War.”

Until this time, army operations largely were conducted blindly. Field commanders did not know exactly what was happening beyond the nearest hill or forest. They relied on couriers on horseback for communications. By the time they received information, it often was old and counterproductive. Orders dispatched to units a mile or more distant sometimes arrived too late; many battles were lost as a result.

Lowe’s aerial contributions thus were enormous. Signaling from aloft, he could deliver real-time reports that provided an important advantage. Soon, the Confederacy, too, was developing an air force, led by Capt. John “Balloon” Bryan.

However, in early 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, Lowe’s new commander, reduced the aeronautical force and demoted Lowe. When he resigned in May, Lowe’s little air force had conducted more than 3,000 missions.

Lowe’s Later Career

Aeronautics was not Lowe’s only scientific interest. He later contributed to improved gas fuel production, refrigeration and electric rail transportation. He relocated to California. An observatory in Pasadena is named after him.

Scott Hart in “America’s One-Man Air Force” surmised that Lowe “transformed the balloon from a carnival novelty to a vital military arm. He was a showman, but he was a scientist, too.”

Sources:

  1. Faust, Patricia L., editor. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. HarperPerennial (1991).
  2. Hart, Scott. “America’s One-Man Air Force.” From True Civil War Stories, Joseph Millard, ed. Fawcett Publictions (1961).
  3. Lowe, T.C.S. “The Balloons With the Army of the Potomac.” Signal Corps Association, 1861-1865.
  4. Phillips, David. Maps of the Civil War. Barnes & Noble Books (1999).
  5. Poleskie, Stephen. The Balloonist. Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, Inc. (2007).