The Aeronauts

Inflation of the balloon Intrepid to reconnoiter the Battle of Fair Oaks; Lowe, not visible in this image, is standing to the right of the balloon.

Last week I had the fantastic opportunity to give a gallery talk in the Library’s Civil War in America Exhibit Hall about the role of technology. There were many technologies or tools in use or being developed at this time, such as the telegraph, ironclad steamships (e.g. Merrimack and Monitor), railroads, Minie balls, and medicine. However, the focus of my gallery talk was on Civil War aeronautics and Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe.

My fascination with Civil War aeronautics and Professor Lowe began in the summer of 2011 as the U.S.began honoring the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the Civil War. I collected all sorts of materials about this topic which resulted in the creation of a  Civil War Aeronautics guide.

Civil War aeronautics was the use of balloons for military aerial reconnaissance, mostly by the Union (Federal Army) from 1861-1863. The men who ‘flew’ the balloons were called aeronauts and they were assisted by a crew or squad of military men under the command of a commissioned officer. The squad assisted in escorting and taking care of the balloon, as well as holding the balloon in place, inflating it, and transporting it. They also helped in relaying observations to the field commanders. In general this semi- military branch was called the Aeronautical Corps or the Union Army of the Balloon Corps.

Most historians agree that the history of the military balloon in the U.S.began in the spring of 1861 when President Lincoln learned about the skills and expertise of Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a scientist and expert balloon maker. President Lincoln summoned Lowe to Washington for a demonstration of his ballooning skills and to investigate the possibility of using balloons in aerial reconnaissance. Lowe inflated and wired his Enterprise balloon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.and sent Lincoln a telegram:

Balloon view of Washington, D.C., May 1861. Wood engraving in Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, p. 134.

This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter– The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene– I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country

That night, Professor Lowe became the first Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army of the Balloon Corps and today he is known as the father of the Air Force.

Military balloons were aerial stations in which the aeronauts would document, map, plan, and assist in the movement of troops. The aeronauts relayed their observations from above in a variety of ways- there was the basic ‘shouting’ down to the crew below, the sketching and taking notes while aloft, or using the telegraph (which was a bit tricky since the balloon would have to be stationary and wired). So hand signals were also developed to quickly relay messages when shouting or the telegraph was not an option.

There were at least 10 named Union balloons- Eagle, Excelsior,Washington, Constitution, Intrepid, Enterprise, Pioneer, North America, United States, and General Scott. However, there were other balloons that were used but were not named. These balloons, depending upon size, would reach heights from 200- 1,000 feet.

The balloons were made of silk and typically filled with hydrogen gas. Keep in mind the balloons would have to be filled out in the field, so the Navy Yard constructed two tanks mounted on wheels for each balloon. The hydrogen gas was created in these tanks by mixing iron, sulphuric acid, and water.

The war balloon was not a perfect system for reconnaissance- some officers found the Balloon Corps a hindrance, while others found the aerial observations of great service. Many of the aeronauts did not have military training, so communication of their observations might not have been accurate. Likewise, military men were not used to flying or floating in mid-air, nor were they always readily available to go aloft in the balloons. However, there are instances of Generals going up in the balloons to make observations.

Photograph of Prof. T.S.C. Lowe, Civil War balloonist

Professor Lowe was a wizard- a wizard in science and ballooning-  which to the uninitiated he might be seen as possessing magical qualities. Perhaps he was the inspiration for the character of the wizard in  Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz?  After learning about Lowe’s life, the similiarities between the two are uncanny.

Before becoming Chief Aeronaut, Professor Lowe traveled as a scientific showman assisting Reginald B. Dincklehoff’s Wonders of Science Show. When Dincklehoff retired, Lowe took his laboratory on the road and dubbed himself the Professor of Chemistry. During this time Lowe began experimenting with hydrogen gas to fill balloons.

He was inspired by the ballooning pioneer John Wise and quickly became an expert balloonist himself. Knowing the science behind how balloons worked and moved, he held outdoor shows where he would ‘predict’ the movement of the balloon. He also built, sold, and took passengers on rides in his balloons.

Professor Lowe’s interests turned to the study the atmosphere and weather, so he joined up with Joseph Henry from the Smithsonian to help ‘fund’ his investigations. During this time he invented numerous weather and flying instruments such as the altimeter, which measures height above sea level.

The ambitious Lowe set a goal to fly to the Atlantic coast (near Washington) from Cincinnati, by balloon. Call it fate, or bad luck, but Lowe never reached the coast. Instead he landed in South Carolina in Confederate territory (note the Civil War had begun a week before). He was held as a Union spy, but was soon released because he convinced his captors that he was a man of science. After this incident, he began to imagine the use of balloons in the war effort.

Professor Lowe resigned as Chief Aeronaut in 1863 and Aeronautal Corps was disbanded. But this was not the end of Lowe’s scientific curiosities. He opened the Lowe Manufacturing Company in Pennsylvania where he experimented with ice- having became fascinated with ice crystals during his balloon ascents. Lowe invented an ice machine and created the first-ever refrigerated ship that could transport perishable items- mostly meat. Unfortunately, citizens were not ready, nor did they trust this invention- so  it failed.

Photograph of Mt. Lowe Railway, cable incline, c1899

But this did not stop Lowe from experimenting. This time he discovered a method to process water into hydrogen gas for use in lighting and heating. At the time, most utilities used coal gas to power cites. He became successful with this venture and his method powered over 30 Eastern cities. He also manufactured stoves, heaters, and fireplaces that also operated by his hydrogen gas method.

In 1888, Lowe headed west and settled in Pasadena,California. Always looking up to the sky, he decided to build a railway- the Mt. Lowe Railway- up the side of the San Gabriel Mountains to a scenic park. His scenic park included a hotel, amusement park, tavern, zoo, and miniature golf course. After negotiations this mountaintop was officially named Mt.Lowe , which still bears his name today. He also had a grand plan to build a flying balloon hotel that would carry 20 passengers from Los Angeles to New York.

You might be wondering if the Confederates had also built a balloon. Yes- they built only one which became a legend and was popularly known as the silk dress balloon. The story goes that this balloon was made of the silk dresses donated from the loyal ladies of the South. However, official records report it was not made of collected silk; rather it was made of newly purchased silk. It was completed in mid June 1862 and on July 4 1862 the boat (named the Teaser) in which the inflated balloon was attached went aground during low tide. Federal troops witnessed the incident and captured the balloon and the boat.

If you are looking for more information about Civil War aeronauts I recommend checking out the  Civil War Aeronautics guide of books, articles, and additional resources- such as History Channel’s DVD Man, Moment & Machine. Lincoln and the Flying Spy Machine (2006).

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