Thaddeus S. C. 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.
His father was a well-respected shoemaker and merchant. Thaddeus lived the life of a farm boy, which meant lots of chores with little time for studying. At the age of 11, Thaddeus declared his own independence and left the farm.
After setting off on his own first to Portland, Me. and then to Boston, where he worked with his older brother making shoes, Thaddeus returned to New Hampshire in 1850 to recuperate from an illness; his stepmother helped nurse him back to health.
It was Reginald B. Dincklehoff’s Wonders of Science Show, a travelling exhibit that featured 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 that also supported his studies. He studied medicine and science and his travels took him to New York, where in 1857 he took his first ride in a hydrogen balloon that 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. His intended destination was New York, where he was planning for 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/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.
The Corps was never part of 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 in time for the army to repair a bridge and give the Union troops the opportunity to escape what would have certainly been a 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 was dismissive of what the balloons could provide, 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 would go on to California and invent a process used for building ice-making machines that would make him a millionaire. His fortune would be dissipated by a railroad investment, however, and the farmer’s boy from Jefferson would die in 1913 with little more by way of wealth than he had as a child.
Still, this man for whom Mount Lowe in California is named, came a long way from the farm chores that he never enjoyed.