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Lincoln & Lowe

Historical Perspective - Part 1 / By Mark Albertson: Thaddeus Lowe lifted off from Cincinnati, Ohio. This was a trial flight preparatory to a grander effort of aeronautical significance… Europe, via a lighter-than-aircraft across the Atlantic which required a better understanding of the jet streams and how to cope.1 For his test flight, Lowe chose his balloon, Enterprise.2

The 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, supported the idea of aerial observation and reconnaissance in the Union Army and, was a supporter of Thaddeus Lowe./ WIKIPEDIA COMMONS PHOTO

Lowe’s quest ended prematurely, as he was blown off course, due south, into the Confederacy. He came to earth in Unionville3, South Carolina. He and his balloon were taken to nearby Columbia, where fortunately, southerners acquainted with Lowe and his aeronautical exploits were able to help him and his balloon be returned to Cincinnati; as opposed to being jailed or worse, perhaps convicted of spying for the Union.

He was “permitted to return to Cincinnati by way of Columbia, South Carolina and Louisville, Kentucky. “As he traveled through the South he became increasingly convinced that the war would be long and arduous, and he determined to organize a balloon corps in the Union and to offer his services as a military aeronaut.”4

Such services for the Union would entail the most subdued form of aeronautics; that of the tethered balloon as opposed to his experiments with the jet stream and free flight.

Murat Halstead, editor of Cincinnati’s the Daily Commercial informed Lowe that he would pass along his offer for his aeronautical services to Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase.

Aeronaut, Thaddeus Lowe, first to electronically transmit
a message, by telegraph,
from an aircraft (balloon) in the air to receiving stations on the ground.

2106 history2Thaddeus Lowe and his wife, Leontine, arrived in Washington, D.C., June 5, 1861, checking in at the National Hotel. He immediately sought an audience with his friend at the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry. And to Henry, he laid out his plan for aerial reconnaissance by tethered balloon.

But other aeronauts were seeking favor with the federal government as well, with their own approaches for aerial observation and reconnaissance. James Allen, John Wise, John La Mountain, all had entered the field first, contacting different officers in the Union Army and various government officials, all trying to make their pitch. Thaddeus Lowe, though, sought the inside track with an approach, reputedly never before attempted by any other aeronaut, with the use of a modern electronic device emblematic of modern communications in the 19th century… the telegraph.

Lowe planned to equip the balloon basket with a telegraph. His plan called for battery-powered telegraphy. Connection to the ground was to be by wire, running from the basket, down the static lines securing the balloon to the earth. Joseph Henry, a physicist by trade, grasped the concept straight away. For Henry, himself, had figured prominently in the “invention of electron magnets and relay junctions introduced into modern telegraph systems decades before.”5 To Henry, such a technological advance as electronic communications successfully implemented from an aerial platform for such military purposes as observation and reconnaissance could prove decisive.

Lowe’s next stop was the Department of the Treasury, with Mr. Salmon P. Chase. The meeting was brief. Chase, too, seemed supportive and assured the aeronaut that he would see to his plan with the president personally. And on June 11, Secretary Chase’s office informed Lowe that the President would have audience with him that evening.

Lowe proceeded to the White House, together with Joseph Henry from the Smithsonian, who acted as his sponsor and witness to Lowe’s technical and scientific skills. They were graciously received by the President. “Lincoln listened attentively to the proposals of the two men and expressed a decided interest in the possibilities of balloons for war service. “The interview was concluded with the President’s promise of serious consideration of the plans laid before him.

“Shortly thereafter, the War Department appropriated a sum ‘not to exceed $200 or $250’ for Lowe’s use in carrying out tests and demonstrations. “. . . and by June 13, most of the details had been settled.”6

Despite assurances from the President, and the promise of money from the War Department, of which $250 was appropriated, confidence in Lowe’s endeavors was not shared by all participating parties. Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was hardly enthusiastic, when James Allen was already working with the Army. Indeed . . . “On June 9, 1861, Allen prepared the larger of his two balloons for inflation under the supervision of Major Albert Meyer, the Union Army’s chief signal officer.”7 “Brigadier General J.F.K. Mansfield, then commanding the Department of Washington, was reported much interested in the matter.”8

Emblematic of much of the reactionary thinking in the Union Army was that of the Commander-in-Chief, himself, General Winfield Scott; that, in response to the efforts then presently underway to organize aerial observation…

“…on June 14, Captain A.W. Whipple of the Topographical Engineers informed his chief, Major Hartman Bache, that ‘the General thinks a balloon of little use in this section of the country.”9

Lowe’s attempt at aerial electronic communication to the ground was a gamble… on which rode the fortunes of the Balloon Corps.

1. See pages 161 and 162, Chapter V, “The Early Career and Work of T.S.C. Lowe, Chief Aeronaut of the Army of the Potomac,” Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, by F. Stansbury Haydon.
2. The name Enterprise was used for aircraft, beginning with the balloon, L’Entreprenant, Jean Marie Coutelle, French Company of Aeronauts or Compagnie d’Aerostiers, 1794. To Lowe’s Enterprise during the War Between the States to starship Enterprise, commanded by Captain Kirk, Star Trek. See page 31, Chapter 3, “Lowe Flying,” Balloons at War, by John Christopher.
3. Later shortened to Union.
4. See page 4, Chapter 1, “Balloons and Airships in the United States Army, 1861-1913,” The United States Army Air Arm, April 1861 to April 1917, by Juliette Hennessey.
5. See page 66, Chapter Four, “Creating an Army in the Air,” War of the Aeronauts, by Charles M. Evans.
6. See pages 171 and 172, F. Stansbury Haydon.
7. See page 64, Evans.
8. See page 173, Haydon.
9. See page 173, Haydon. F. Stansbury Haydon was referring to, a “War Department document in the National Archives [hereinafter cited as LRTE]. Whipple to Bache, June 14, 1861, MS W506, Letters Received, Bureau of Topographical Engineers.”

Mark Albertson is the award-winning Army Aviation Publications Historian and a contributing editor to ARMY AVIATION magazine.