World Book Encyclopedia Biography

Lowe, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine 1832-1913), organized and directed balloon reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the Union Army during the Civil War. Lowe also used balloons to study air currents, and made several long voyages, including one from New York City to New Orleans. He believed that balloons might some day carry passengers across the Atlantic Ocean. Lowe was born in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire.

Balloons in war. Balloons were first used in warfare by France in 1794. France was then at war with several other European countries. The French used captive balloons as observation platforms to learn the locations of enemy troops and direct the movements of French troops.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), a balloonist named Thaddeus Lowe organized and directed a balloon corps in the Union Army. The North used captive observation balloons to direct artillery fire and to report Confederate troop movements.

Balloons had another use during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), when German armies surrounded Paris. The people of Paris communicated with the outside world by means of balloons and carrier pigeons. They launched more than 60 balloons, which carried a total of nearly 10 short tons (9 metric tons) of mail.

During World War I (1914-1918), captive observation balloons were widely used both by the Allies, which included France, Britain, and Italy, and by the Central Powers, which included Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain also introduced balloon barrages during the war for protection against low-flying enemy airplanes. The barrages consisted of captive balloons from which steel cables were suspended. Enemy planes had to fly above the balloons or risk being ripped apart by the cables. The British set up a barrage 51 miles (82 kilometers) long around London. Italy, France, and Germany also used balloon barrages.

During World War II (1939-1945), balloon barrages were again used by Britain and other Allied nations and by Germany and other Axis countries. The barrages were used on land and on ships. The Japanese used balloons to carry bombs. They released more than 9,000 bomb-carrying balloons that were intended to land on the West Coast of the United States. Only a few hundred reached the United States, and the damage was minor.


Thaddeus S. C. Lowe

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe (1832-1913)

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe (August 20, 1832 January 16, 1913) was an American aeronaut, scientist and inventor.


1 Early years

2 Participation in the Civil War (1861-1863)

3 Return to the private sector

4 Retirement in Pasadena, California

5 Death

6 Legacy

7 See also

8 References

9 External links

Early years

He was born in Jefferson, New Hampshire to Clovis Lowe and Alpha Green (c1810-1842), as the second child of a poor farm family of six. At age 10 his mother died, Alpha was the granddaughter of a Mayflower arrival. Thaddeus was sent away to another farm where he worked as an indentured servant. He had little time or opportunity for education but he required answers to some of his observations of the heavens and the high wind that always blew in an easterly direction. It would become a life's ambition to fly that wind (now known as a jet stream).

He ran away from indentured servitute on July 4, 1844 and began a circuitous route homeward taking him to as far away as Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked as a cobbler's apprentice for Nash, French and Company, and later for his older brother Joseph. By age 17 he had returned home, having become seriously ill. His father (Clovis Lowe, formerly also a cobbler, born in Sunkhaze, Maine) had earlier remarried (to Mary Randall) adding seven more children to the family. One day his step-brother Charles invited him to a road show demonstration of scientific phenomena put on by a Prof. Dincklehoff. Lowe was fascinated by the lighter-than-air gases the Professor used and their effect on bubbles. He even eagerly volunteered to help with one of the demonstrations. Lowe became the Professor's assistant on the road for another year until his retirement at which point Lowe took over the show under his newer name, Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, Professor of Chemistry.

The business proved profitable enough for Lowe to procure the education he so lacked as a child. He tried medicine to fulfill he grandmother's wish, but the boredom redirected him to his first interest, aviation and the use of lighter-than-air gases. American balloonists used coke gas to inflate limp silk bags, as opposed to the original French balloons which were cotton weave over rigid frameworks that were stood over fires to collect hot smoke (hot air). By the late 1850's Lowe had become a foremost balloon builder and continued his lucrative business as a showman giving balloon rides to passers-by and fairground attendees.

Leontine Augustine Gaschon Lowe

In 1855, at one of his lectures, he met the pretty Parisian actress, 19-year-old Leontine Augustine Gaschon who in a week became his wife, February 14, 1855. During their honeymoon travels in the South, Lowe occasionally put on short programs in town as "Professor Coulincourt." They would go on to have 10 children: Louise F. Lowe; Ida Alpha Lowe (1859-?); Leon Percival Lowe (1861-?); Ava Eugenia Lowe (1863-?); Augustine Marguerite Lowe (1865-?); Blanche Lowe (1867-?); Thaddeus Lowe II (1870-?), who had a famous aviatrix daughter known as Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes; Edna M. Lowe (1872-?); Zoe Lowe (1875-?); and Sobieski Constantine Lowe (1877-?). They made their home in New York City and later in Philadelphia.

He continued with his scientific endeavors and avocation to make a transatlantic flight via the high winds. In 1857 he piloted his first balloon in tethered flight at a small farm in Hoboken. His father also became involved in the balloon-making business with Thad and together they built the "Enterprise", which was demonstrated at an exhibition in Ottawa. He amassed supporters from all corners of the scientific community, in particular one Prof. Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution

Lowe's mammoth balloon the city of new York, later named Great Western, to be used in a transatlantic flight.

Lowe's latest mammoth balloon, the City of New York, was a massive 103-foot diameter balloon with a 11-1/2 ton lift capacity (on coke gas, 22-1/2 ton on hydrogen), which included an 20 foot diameter, 8-man canvas covered gondola and a suspended lifeboat named for his wife Leontine. It was prepared for a test flight to be launched at Reservoir Square in New York on November 1, 1859. Unfortunately the local gas company was not able to deliver a sufficient supply of gas. Within a week Lowe was invited to Philadelphia by Prof. John C. Cresson of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Sciences, who also happened to be Chairman of the Board of the Point Breeze Gas Works. They promised a sufficient supply of gas. Lowe stored the balloon away in Hoboken and waited for Spring to do the test flight.

Before the test flight the balloon was renamed the Great Western, on the advice of newspaperman Horace Greeley, to rival the maiden voyage of the steamship Great Eastern in Spring of 1860. Lowe made the flight successfully on June 28, 1860, from Philadelphia to New Jersey, however, in his first attempt at a transatlantic launch on September 7, the Great Western was ripped open by a wind. A second attempt on September 29 was halted when the repaired spot on the balloon bulged during inflation. Lowe would need to overhaul the GW and wait for the next late Spring.

A second test flight, at the suggestion of Prof. Henry, was made to be from Cincinnati and was to return him to the eastern seaboard. In this flight he used the smaller balloon Enterprise. His flight took off on the early morning of April 19, 1861, two days after Virginia had seceded from the Union. The flight misdirected him to Unionville, North Carolina where he was put under house arrest as a Yankee spy. Having established his identity as a man of science, he was allowed to return home where he had received word from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to come to Washington with his balloon. The American Civil War would end Lowe's attempt at a transatlantic crossing.

Participation in the Civil War (1861-1863)

On the evening of June 11, 1861 Lowe met with President Lincoln and offered to perform a demonstration with the Enterprise and a telegraph set from a height some 400 feet above the White House. Lowe was competing for the position with three other prominent balloonists, Mr. John Wise, Mr. John LaMountain, and the Allen Brothers, Ezra and james. Wise and LaMountain were old critics of Lowe, but were not se easily able to obtain the assignment.

Lowe's first outing was performed at First Bull Run with General Irwin McDowell and the Army of the Potomac. His performance was impressive though he had the misfortune of having to land behind enemy lines. Fortunately he was found by members of the 31st New York Volunteers before the enemy could discover him, but he had twisted his ankle and was not able to walk out with them. Eventually his wife Leontine, disguised as an old hag came to his rescue with a buckboard and was able to extract him and his equipment safely.

Word of his exploits got back to the President who commanded Gen. Winfield Scott to see to Lowe's formation of a Balloon Corps with himself as Chief Aeronaut. It was almost four months before Lowe received orders and provisions to construct four (eventually six) balloons with hydrogen gas generators. At the same time he assembled a band of men whom he would instruct in the methodology of military ballooning. The newly formed Union Army Balloon Corps remained a civilian contract organization, and never received a military commission, a dangerous position lest any one of the men be captured as spies and summarily executed.

Lowe returned to the Army of the Potomac now under Gen. George McClellan with his new military balloon the Eagle, though his generators were not ready. He performed ascensions over Yorktown after which the Confederates retreated toward Richmond. Lowe was given use of a converted coal barge, The George Washington Parke Custis, onto which he loaded two new balloons and two new hydrogen gas generators which exercised the first observations over the Potomac River thereby making the GWP Custis the first-ever aircraft carrier. Lowe went on to serve in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 making observations over Mechanicsville, Virginia, and the ensuing battle of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks.

Lowe's ascent in the Intrepid over the Battle of Fair Oaks where his observations of the oncoming Confederate Army and the timely manner in which he reported troop movements saved the isolated army of General Heintzelman. Though had use the hydrogen gas generators (each balloon camp was assigned two generator units), the inflation time was still another hour off. He quickly transferred the gas from the Constitution into the Intrepid by cutting a hole in the bottom of a camp kettle and connecting the balloons at the valve ends. The process took fifteen minutes, a time savings he valued at "a million dollars a minute."

The muddy bogs around Fair Oaks and the Chickahominy River gave rise to many exotic diseases such as typhoid and malaria. Lowe contracted malaria and was put out of service for more than a month. The unsuccessful Army of the Potomac was forced to withdraw from the Fair Oaks and Lowe's wagons and mules were commandeered for the evacuation and eventually returned to the Quartermaster. When Lowe returned to Washington he was hard pressed to be put back into service. Eventually he was called to Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg where his services were used.

The Balloon Corps was reassigned to the Engineers Corps. Lowe's pay was Colonel's pay, $10 gold per day. In March of 1863 an officious Captain Comstock, put in charge of the newly reassigned air division, cut Lowe's pay to $6 cash ($3 gold). At the same time a Congressional assessment was being made of the air division and a disparaging third party report, which Lowe refuted in a lengthy response, gave pause to the Union commanders for further use of balloons. The whole sordid affair caused Lowe to tender his resignation in May of 1863. The Allen Brothers took charge of the Balloon Corps, but were unable to operate it with the same capacity as Lowe. By August it had ceased to exist.

Return to the private sector

Lowe returned to show business, but his bout with malaria after the Fair Oaks battle and his weariness from the War took away his zest for a transatlantic flight (which no one ever made in a simple gas balloon). He made a new home in Norristown, Pennsylvania where he continued with his scientific endeavors with hydrogen gas, improving upon and patenting the water gas process by which high volumes of the volatile fuel could be made from passing steam over hot coal. The industry revolutionized home heating and lighting along the eastern seaboard. He held several patents on ice making machines and even discovered that gas burning through a platinum mantle produced a bright light (as later found in the Coleman lantern).

He bought an old steamship on which he installed his refrigerating units and began shipping fresh fruit from New York to Galveston, and fresh beef back. This was an historical first where people were able to eat fresh beef that hadn't been packed in preservative salts. His steamship venture failed due to his lack of knowledge about shipping, but the industry was picked up by several other countries.

Lowe also manufactured products that ran on hydrogen gas. With these and his several patents Lowe amassed a fortune. For his achievements Lowe received the coveted Elliott Cresson Grand Medal of Honor for the Invention Held to be Most Useful to Mankind.

Retirement in Pasadena, California

In 1887 Lowe moved to Los Angeles and in 1890 to Pasadena, California where he built a 24,000 sq. ft. mansion. He started a water-gas company, founded the Citizens Bank of Los Angeles (not to be confused with Citizens Bank founded in Rhode Island), established several ice plants, and funded an opera house.

In 1891 he incorporated the Pasadena & Mount Wilson Railroad (later the Mount Lowe Railway). Unable to obtain all the rights of way to Mt. Wilson, he and his engineer David J. Macpherson redirected their railway toward Oak Mountain via the Echo promontory. The difference between this and any other railway of its kind was that it was all electric traction trolley (streetcar), the only one of its kind ever. Oak Mountain would later be renamed Mount Lowe, and to make it official, Andrew McNally, the map printer from Chicago who was also transplanted to Altadena, had Mt. Lowe printed on all his maps (see Rand McNally).

Lowe opened the first section of the railway on July 4, 1893, from the corner of Lake and Calaveras in Altadena to the Rubio Pavilion in the Rubio Canyon, then transferring to a steep 2,800 foot-long funicular to Echo Mountain. At the top there was a 40 room Chalet. In 1894 he added an 80 room hotel, the Echo Mountain House and the observatory. By 1896 the upper division was finished into Grand Canyon at Ye Alpine Tavern. All together there were some 7 miles of track. Lowe lost the venture to receivership in 1899 leaving him impoverished. The MLR became part of the Henry Huntington's recently formed Pacific Electric Railway (also known as "Red Car") in 1902.

The only part of the railway property that remained Lowe's was the observatory on Echo Mountain. It boasted a 16-inch reflective telescope from which many astronomical finds had been made. It was blown down in a gale force wind in 1928. The railway fell in stages to the Echo Mountain House fire, a kitchen fire (February 4, 1900); a wind aided brush fire on Echo Mountain in 1905, which wiped out everything except the observatory and the astronomer's cabin; a Rubio Canyon flash flood in 1909 that destroyed the Pavilion; and an electrical fire that razed the Tavern in 1936. The line was abandoned after the Los Angeles deluge of March 1938.


Lowe died at his daughter's Pasadena, California home at age 81 after a few years of failing health.


The Mount Lowe Railway was placed on the National Register of Historic Places January 6, 1993. Lowe is a member of the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

See also

1880 US Census of Norristown, Pennsylvania

Pancho Lowe Barnes, granddaughter and aviation pioneer


Manning, Mike, Intrepid, An Account of Prof. T.S.C. Lowe, Civil War Aeronaut and Hero

Lowe, Thaddeus, Official Report (to the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton) (Parts I & II) (#11 & #12) O.R. - Series III - Volume III [S#124] Correspondence, Orders, Reports, and Returns of the Union Authorities From Jan 1 to December 31, 1863.

Block, Eugene B., Above the Civil War, 1966.

Hoehling, Mary, Thaddeus Lowe, America's One-Man Air Corps, 1958.

Seims, Charles, Mount Lowe, The Railway in the Clouds, 1976.

Evans, Charles M., Air War over Virginia, an on-line publication.

The Mount Lowe Railway: Man, Mountain and Monument 2001

Bio at California Military Museum