Lincoln's Air ForceNext Page →
Thaddeus Lowe "was the first person to telegraph a dispatch directly from a balloon to field headquarters, the first person to take aerial photographs, and the pioneer of aerial map making. He and his men were credited with saving the Union Army on two occasions. Operating independently of the military, with no rank or position, dressed not in Union blue but in the high silk hat and black frock coat that were the upper class costume of the day, Thaddeus Lowe was, as his granddaughter Florence later so proudly claimed, the father of the United States Air Force. (1)
Thaddeus Lowe was born in 1832 in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. When he was a young boy, his parents apprenticed him to a shoe maker in Boston so he could learn a useful trade. But Thaddeus was not meant to be a shoemaker. Instead, he wanted to become a scientist. The young boy was fascinated with science and technology and read widely about scientists such as Benjamin Franklin. When he learned that Europeans invented the hot air balloon decades before, he was determined to take to the skies himself. His first experiment involved constructing a huge kite and successfully suspending a caged cat in the air for over an hour.
After his apprenticeship was over, he became a laboratory assistant for a traveling chemistry show. He continued to experiment, building toy balloons at first, and then built his first hot air balloon at the age of 25 from instructions he found in a book.
In 1857 Thaddeus made his first balloon ascent, and in 1859 he had built a balloon five times larger than his first one and planned a transatlantic crossing. Thaddeus began a test flight from Cincinnati to Philadelphia to test upper air currents for his upcoming transatlantic flight, but was blown off course. He landed in South Carolina, where he was almost shot by the local residents because they thought he was a Union spy. Thaddeus was able to go after showing them a newspaper article announcing his flight. Thaddeus did not plan to become a Union spy, but after his close encounter with Southerners shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, he realized that ballooning would provide the Union with a definite advantage during the War.
(1) Kessler, Lauren. The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. Random House: New York, 2000, p. 7.
The International Women's Air & Space Museum is located in Cleveland, Ohio in the Terminal of Burke Lakefront Airport. Visit us today!