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Our Rich History: The misadventures of Thaddeus Lowe and the beginnings of modern aeronautics

By Jacob Koch
Special to NKyTribune

On the morning of April 20, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe (1832–1913) would prepare to set off in his hot air balloon, “The Enterprise,” from Cincinnati as a test run to Washington DC. This was part of a much grander plan, a transatlantic flight. Previously, he had sailed from Philadelphia to New Jersey in July of 1860 using the enormous balloon “The Great Western,” which had a diameter of over 100 feet. Lowe’s next two attempts with the same balloon would result in failure after the balloon ruptured during inflation. This would lead him to perform another test flight with a smaller balloon at the bequest of Professor Joseph Henry, a friend who would suggest Cincinnati as a good location. Little did Lowe know what exactly awaited him on his journey, and the enormous consequences that would follow.

Lowe’s journey to Cincinnati would begin in April of 1861. After his arrival, he was warmly greeted by the citizens and businessmen of Cincinnati, who were ecstatic about his planned test flight. Lowe was offered a speaking engagement at the Cincinnati Opera, where he demonstrated his plan for the flight, as well as displayed models of his balloons. Lowe received a standing ovation for his lecture. Though he had arrived in Cincinnati in early April, snow and rain would prevent his flight for several weeks until preferable weather conditions could be secured. During the interim, Lowe would be the guest at many dinners and functionary events around the city. In his personal memoirs, he recalls.

Thaddeus Lowe, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“I was dined and feted, and am reminded of the saying of Admiral Farragut, that the dinners he was forced to eat on his trip around the world, after the war, had more terrors for him then all the battles.”

On April 19, Lowe was invited to a dinner held in his honor by Murat Halstead, an old friend and editor of the Cincinnati Commercial. Many of the most important men of Ohio would attend, so Lowe wore a fine broadcloth frock coat with a high silk hat. While attending the dinner that evening, Lowe was approached by an assistant to inform him of the break in the weather and the preferable conditions for his flight. Without much time to rest or prepare, Lowe immediately left to gather the final supplies for his trip, while his balloon was inflated and prepped. He took a pitcher of coffee, as well as fruit and other supplies from the party, on his flight. Lowe would later remark in his memoirs that “The coffee was still hot when I arrived in South Carolina.”

With all the final preparations made, Lowe was ready to set off, the only holdup was the wait on copies of the Commercial from Halstead. At 3:30 a.m. on April 20, Halstead arrived with copies of the Commercial, the ink still wet from printing. With the Commercial in hand, Lowe was ready for his journey to commence. With a signal to his men, he set off, his sights aimed at Washington DC.

As Lowe rose ever higher, he could see the flicker of the oil lanterns lining the streets of the Queen City. A mile above the Queen City’s streets, the entire city seemed peaceful and calm. The air that the Enterprise was riding headed him westward as he continued his ascension. Lowe, like much of the scientific community of the time, had correctly proposed that a westerly wind current (called the “prevailing westerlies” today; note that winds derive their names from the direction where they originate) existed above the lower altitude winds. Lowe’s journey was paramount to this theory. Fortunately, he was correct. At about a mile and a fifth, according to Lowe’s memoirs, the Enterprise began to travel eastward towards the Atlantic on the prevailing westerlies, much to Lowe’s elation. However, his elation would soon dampen. He wouldn’t maintain his trajectory to Washington DC, as unforeseen complications began to surmount.

When Lowe reached 7000 feet, he would be faced with several challenges. The temperature quickly dropped to below zero, freezing everything in the balloon. While the extreme temperature was certainly unpleasant, another problem occurred with the gas in the balloon. As the gas went through a drastic change in temperature, it expanded, causing it to freeze and to form ice crystals. When Lowe went from the mild temperature of Cincinnati to the freezing heights of 7000 feet, this exact problem began to arise. While still dark at the time, Lowe could not see the frozen hail of the gas, but he could hear it, as well as feel it. He recalled that it was a “hard bead-like hail.” Upon opening the neck of the balloon to vent some of its gas, a large amount of this icy buildup fell out of the balloon, causing the balloon to ascend even further. At inspection of the barometer, Lowe observed that he had risen to a height of three miles.

As the sun rose, the balloon gases expanded further, causing the balloon to reach a height of over 18,000 feet. Lowe recalled the beauty of the sunrise, the extra visibility and splendor of which was due to the particulates that inhabited the atmosphere. While the beauty of the sunrise had Lowe in awe, the next major obstacle of his journey lies directly ahead. As Lowe reached the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia, a miscalculation in his plan would send him adrift. Contrary to his intended beliefs, the wind currents there were affected by the mountains. This caused Lowe to reach an even higher height of over four miles, far higher than the balloon could naturally go. From this altitude, he was pushed in a southeastwardly arch. Seeing fields below, Lowe realized the speed he was traveling as he descended the slope of the Allegheny mountains. Then Lowe saw several farmhands in a field. Unsure of his current location, he descended to a current that was neutral in order to call out to them.

The Enterprise, picture from a daguerreotype by J.W. Winder, 1861.

“What state is this?” Lowe called out above the men. The men looked in every direction, unsure where the voice had come from. Again, Lowe called out with the same question. The men, assuming that the voice was from the nearby woods, turned to it and yelled “Virginia.” Lowe thanked the men and when doing so, released sand from his ballast to begin his ascent. As the sand hit the ground, the men learned exactly where the calls were coming from, and upon seeing the balloon, took off in terror towards the woods.

Gaining ascent, Lowe would continue his journey, being pushed even further south by the winds of the Alleghenies. Lowe would set down initially in South Carolina near the North Carolina border. Upon his initial descent, he ended up in a rice patty. Not being a suitable place to land, Lowe headed west to a field where he was able to set the balloon down. In this field, however, Lowe was quickly encircled by several planters and a group of slaves. Lowe thought that the slaves were ready to assist him, however the planters ordered them away. When trying to ascertain his location, only one of the planters spoke to him in a cordial manner. It became obvious that Lowe was not welcomed, as he was warned that they could not be responsible for what happened to him if he continued his current path. To this end Lowe departed, removing a large ballast bag to ascend quickly. As he rose, the friendly planter shouted, “Hello mister, I reckon you’ve dropped your baggage!” Lowe disregarded their shouts, as he feared the potential for one of them to damage the balloon with the muskets they possessed.

As Lowe continued to search for a place to set down his balloon, he heard musket fire the entire way. Being at an altitude of two miles in relation to the southerners, he knew that none of their firearms could hit him. After traveling several miles, Lowe came across Pea Ridge. It was here where he decided to land. Upon seeing Lowe’s balloon, an Indian tribe conflated the craft as a giant hawk and fled in terror, inducing a panic to the neighboring slaves and whites in nearby huts. After finding a suitable place to tether the balloon, Lowe called out for assistance, to which no one responded. After struggling with the balloon and continuing to ask for assistance, Lowe was approached by a young white girl, who by his account was nearly six feet tall, well proportioned, and only 18 or 19 years old. She agreed to assist him. After he instructed her about securing the basket, several other whites and slaves came out of hiding to assist him.

Due to the attention Lowe had attracted from the farms he flew above, many farmers who had followed Lowe’s journey on horseback were quickly encircling the balloon. Many of them were armed with muskets or shotguns. Upon seeing the balloon and Lowe up close, they hid their weapons behind a fence before approaching. As they came upon the unfamiliar site, they were greeted by the foul odor of the gas which was released by the balloon upon deflation. As the balloon slowly deflated, the once fearful people became less fearful and more openly aggressive.

Many of the southerners had never encountered a balloon and thus believed some infernal or satanic means were behind the man and his contraption. This quickly led to hostility, which was only furthered by the suspicion of Lowe when he revealed the fruit and supplies he had stocked aboard the balloon the night before, and which had frozen in the subzero temperatures. He did so to quell the people’s fears that he too was mortal. Viewing this evidence and considering him a Yankee threat with great power due to the copy of the Cincinnati Commercial in the basket—South Carolina had just seceded two days prior—the men moved to have Lowe shot. The same young woman came to Lowe’s defense, saying that all the men who remained were cowards, that all the brave men had gone to war.

Presenting the tools for navigating the balloon and a colt revolver that he had packed, Lowe was prepared to defend himself if necessary. Lowe inquired about the county seat to ascertain how to proceed. Upon making an agreeable compromise, the balloon was packed up and Lowe began the twenty-mile journey in several hours once the cart was ready. He would stay with the family of the helpful girl, sharing the many luxuries in supplies he had brought with him.

The trajectory of Lowe’s flight. Image from Eugene Block, Above the Civil War: Thaddeus Lowe.

In contrast to many of those around Lowe, his dress was rather luxurious. This would be a key factor in determining the validity of his identity as a man of science and not a spy. Lowe would not arrive at Unionville, the site of the county seat he demanded until 10 pm that evening. Upon arrival, he was promptly placed under arrest. However, due to the high profile of his situation, he was placed under house arrest in a resident’s home. The next morning would change Lowe’s situation. One of the residents of Unionville, a local newspaper editor recognized him as a man of science. The very copy of the Commercial which had initially aroused suspicion of Lowe validated his story of being a man of science and the well-renowned Professor Lowe. With this revelation, the demeanor of the group changed from hostility to praise. Lowe would then attend a feast in his honor, before being set on his way to Washington, DC and the Smithsonian.

While Lowe’s journey regarding the designated location was a failure, it provided much new scientific information. Lowe’s journey not only proved the westerlies theory, he had also learned of the different currents created by the mountains. But perhaps the more remarkable fact was the attention that Lowe garnered. Not only did Lowe gain renown in the aeronautics community, he gained the attention of the most important man in America, Abraham Lincoln. Upon learning of Lowe’s flight, Lincoln requested that he give a demonstration of his aeronautic technology.

This meeting would cultivate two burgeoning technologies, hot air balloons, and the revolutionary telegraph machine. Lowe set up his balloon in Washington DC and on the evening of June 11, 1861, he sent the first telegraph from his balloon to the ground below, giving birth to aerial recognizance. Lowe would then go on to head the aeronautics division and the balloon corps that was developed during the Civil War.

For the next two years, he would set the ground for later uses of air power in warfare, as well as gain the title of “most shot-at man during the war.” Ultimately leaving the Balloon Corp due to pay issues, Lowe returned to the private sector. His work would continue to be the inspiration for the next generation of aeronauts.

Jacob Koch is a researcher at Heritage Village Museum. He received his BA in History from the University of Cincinnati and is currently a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University.

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One Comment

  1. Giles D. says:

    In an era when it was common to spend a lifetime within a small distance of where you were born, a stranger arriving by a strange mode of transportation was cause for great alarm! What a great story, and a window into a time not very long ago with major cultural differences from our own!

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