PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE
An inflated proposal: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War balloons
By Timothy R. Smith
The Washington Post
June 11, 2011
The famous aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe had
grand designs for balloons as instruments of war. On June 11, 1861, he
laid out his vision to President Lincoln.
These balloons, Lowe explained, could
be used to direct artillery fire or conduct reconnaissance of enemy
battle lines. This intrigued Lincoln, who had a lifelong fascination
with technology and who personally held a patent for a device that
would buoy vessels over sandbars. He believed technology could be used
to the military’s advantage in the upcoming conflict. Maybe, just
maybe, it would be the deciding factor.
Lowe’s proposal sounded interesting
but the challenge wasn’t just going aloft and observing. Soldiers on
the ground needed real-time information. Flags wouldn’t be feasible,
especially over long distances or if visibility were poor. If Lowe
could find a solution, he could test it, Lincoln said.
Well, Lowe had an idea. He would run
a telegraph wire from a balloon’s gondola to a receiving station below.
An aerial signal had never been sent before but it was worth a try.
Seven days later, Lowe went aloft,
accompanied by a telegraph operator and the superintendent of the
American Telegraph Co. A single wire tethered the balloon to the War
Department building near the White House, where Lincoln stood on the
second-floor balcony, watching.
After Lowe gained enough altitude he sent a telegraph:
“To the [sic] President United
States… I have the pleasure of sending you this first dispatch ever
telegraphed from an aerial station”
Afterward, Lincoln recommended that
Lowe talk to Gen. Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the Army, to
set in motion an air corps.
That did not go well. The old general
was reluctant to use the newfangled contraptions and delayed meeting
with Lowe. Excuses poured in. He was occupied, couldn’t possibly meet
with him. More than a month passed, during which the Union suffered an
embarrassing defeat at Manassas.
A frustrated Lowe approached Lincoln,
who upon hearing the complaint, took Lowe to the Army headquarters to
see Scott. Lincoln was perturbed. Had the Army had a few balloons to
survey the battlefield, Manassas might have turned out differently, he
“General, this is my friend Professor
Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautic Corps for the Army, and is to be
its chief,” Lincoln said. “I wish you…to give him all the necessary
things to equip his branch of the service.”
By early August, Lowe was designing a
balloon for the Army and the Aeronautic Corps would be one of the great
surveillance successes of the war on either side.