Thaddeus Lowe studied by candlelight on his family’s farm in Jefferson, N.H., with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. While work on the farm occupied his time – work that he had no love for – it was science that occupied his mind.
Thaddeus Lowe, born Aug. 20, 1832, lived the life of a farm boy. That meant lots of chores with little time for studying. His father was a well-respected shoemaker and merchant. At the age of 11, Thaddeus declared his own independence and left the farm.
He set off on his own first to Portland, Maine, and then to Boston, where he worked with his older brother making shoes. Then Thaddeus returned to New Hampshire in 1850 to recuperate from an illness. His stepmother helped nurse him back to health.
Reginald B. Dincklehoff
It was Reginald B. Dincklehoff’s Wonders of Science Show, a travelling exhibit with a demonstration of the properties of hydrogen, that set Thaddeus off in a new direction.
He attended the show and volunteered from the audience to be an assistant. Dincklehoff, seeing Lowe’s enthusiasm mixed in with a good dollop of natural showmanship, offered to take him on as an apprentice. For two years, Lowe worked as assistant in the show and then bought the entire operation when Dincklehoff decided to retire.
Lowe was a hit. His hard work, growing knowledge of science and flair for showmanship allowed him to earn a living. He could also support his studies of medicine and science.
In 1855, he met an exiled French actress, Leontine Augustine Gaschon, who was 19. They married a week later, and eventually had 10 children.
Their travels then took them to New York, where in 1857 he took his first ride in a hydrogen balloon he built himself.
He began talking with anyone who would listen about the benefits of balloons and how they could be used in gathering atmospheric data. His ideas for a national weather service, using balloons to record weather observations, would not come to fruition. Others would make that idea a reality later on.
But he did soon find a use for his balloons. In 1861, the Civil War broke out with the surrender of Fort Sumter. In April, Lowe launched himself in one of his balloons from Cincinnati. He intended to reach New York, where he planned a trans-Atlantic balloon voyage.
His balloon carried him south, however, into South Carolina. There, the newly created Confederacy treated Lowe as a spy, convinced his flight was military in nature. He soon was identified as a showman and a scientist and released. However, the incident put thoughts into Lowe’s head. Balloons could, indeed, be useful sources of intelligence during wartime.
Lowe travelled to Washington and offered to demonstrate the balloon for President Lincoln. Lowe took his balloon, the Intrepid, to the First Battle of Bull Run. He ascended in the balloon and was able to report Confederate troop movements to the Union generals.
Unfortunately, his balloon came down behind enemy lines, and Lowe injured his ankle. It was ultimately his wife, Leontine, who disguised herself as an old woman in a wagon and drove Lowe back to safety.
News of his adventures had reached Lincoln, and he awarded Lowe the contract to start the Union Army Balloon Corps. He made Lowe its Chief Aeronaut.
The Corps never belonged to the military, which meant Lowe and its other members would be subject to execution as spies if they were ever captured. The added danger probably appealed to Lowe’s sense of adventure.
Lowe set to work building balloons. President Lincoln attended one demonstration of the new balloons on October 4, 1861. The balloons proved their worth on more than one occasion. In 1862, for instance, he was able to spot the Confederate Army advancing on a smaller contingent of Union troops. That gave the army time to repair a bridge and give the Union troops the opportunity to escape certain defeat.
With the assignment of the balloon corps to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lowe was finished with the military. The leader of the Corps dismissed the usefulness of balloons, and he decided to cut Lowe’s pay. Lowe resigned and the balloon corps soon stopped functioning.
The move was not the end of Lowe’s career, however. He went to California and invented a process for building ice-making machines that made him a millionaire. His fortune would be dissipated by a railroad investment, however. The farmer’s boy from Jefferson would die in 1913 with little more by way of wealth than he had as a child.
Still, the man for whom Mount Lowe in California is named came a long way from the farm chores that he never enjoyed.
This story was updated in 2021.