History’s Most Famous Forgotten Man: Professor Lowe

Alyse Beale
May 13, 2019 · 9 min read

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe was a man of many firsts whose contributions altered the course of the American Civil War and paved the way for many of the technological devices we rely on today. He was famous in his time, well-known on the East Coast where he ballooned across the skies, to the West in California where the city of Pasadena dedicated their first holiday in his name. Despite his influence on the Civil War, his inventions that democratized commodities previously available only to the wealthy, and his world-class mountain railway and resort that millions visited, few still speak of Professor Lowe. Sadly, one of America’s most famous men remains largely forgotten.

Thaddeus Lowe during the Civil War.

Lowe escaped indentured servitude and became a self-taught “professor.”
Thaddeus Lowe’s mother died when he was only eleven, forcing his father to contract him out as a servant to a neighboring farm. Believing “that freedom was [his] rightful heritage,” Lowe ran away on a two-year road trip up the Eastern Seaboard.(1) He became an apprentice to a traveling chemist and performer, then starved himself to save enough money to buy his own chemistry set and establish a tour of his own. By the age of twenty-one and with only a third-grade education, his audience knew him as the “Professor of Chemistry,” gifting him with the life-long nickname, “Professor Lowe.”

He planned what was to be the first transatlantic flight in the “largest balloon ever constructed.”
The professor’s true interest lie in aeronautics and he soon spent his savings on material for hot-air balloons. Once satisfied with his work, he set off for New York City and announced he would fly the “largest balloon ever constructed” across the Atlantic Ocean. He prepared his departure on the intersection of 5th and 42nd Street, which attracted a large crowd of critics. Crushed to find that the gas company he hired was capable of providing only a fraction of the cubic feet of gas he required, Lowe admitted temporary defeat — much to his critics’ delight — and resigned to Philadelphia for further planning.

Professor Lowe literally fell into the Confederacy and became its first prisoner of war.
After his disappointment in New York, Lowe sought help from Professor Joseph Henry at Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Institute. Henry promised Lowe his required amount of gas but first asked that Lowe prove the safety and success of his journey by conducting a test flight from Cincinnati to the East Coast. Unfortunately, Lowe crash-landed into South Carolina where locals arrested him as the first prisoner of the Civil War. Narrowly avoiding a spy’s execution, Lowe called on fellow scientists who had experienced his ballooning firsthand to vouch for his story. Eventually, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, wrote him a temporary passport through the “Confederate States of North America,” and saw him on a train to Washington, D.C. (2)

Professor Lowe in his balloon, the Intrepid.

Abraham Lincoln hired him as Chief Aeronaut to the Union Army.
Once back in the Union, Lowe convinced his way into the White House where he spoke to President Lincoln about the advantages of using his balloons for wartime surveillance. With the president unconvinced, Lowe tethered himself in a balloon before the White House and sent the world’s first telegraph from mid-air, noting his ability to make observations from up to fifty miles away.(3) Lincoln invited Lowe to stay at the White House that night, and he soon after hired him as Chief Aeronaut to the Union army.

Although Lowe did not know it at the time, he also bumped into Lincoln’s assassin on a return trip to Cincinnati. John Wilkes Booth had been traveling with an actor troupe when he introduced himself to Lowe, telling him that “A man must follow his will no matter where it took him.” (4)

The Professor was known as the “Most Shot at Man in the War.”
Lowe served as Chief Aeronaut for several years, gaining both notoriety from his fellow soldiers and a barrage of bullets from the enemy. Lowe proved an irresistible target, tethered above enemy encampments and sending reports of their movements back to the capitol. Luckily for the professor, Confederate guns could not aim at his basket accurately, no matter how hard they tried. Lowe simply lined his balloon’s basket with sheet metal and returned to work, earning him the nickname “the Most Shot-At Man in the War.” (5)

Lowe’s balloon corps turned the tides of war.
For the first time in history, an army was able to conduct surveillance from the sky and fire at an enemy unseen. While some generals reported that Lowe “revolutionize[d] the art of gunnery,” others were reluctant to follow Lowe’s advice, a mistake which cost them dearly at the Battle of Fair Oaks.(6) Nevertheless, Lowe provided surveillance and directed attacks from the sky at numerous battles, including the First Battle of Bull Run and during the Peninsula Campaign. The professor left the war early after contracting malaria and struggling against the army’s never-ending bureaucracy. Because Lincoln, rather than the army, hired Lowe, his efforts went unrecognized until well after his death, despite how pivotal his balloons had been to the war effort.

Historians claim that Lowe was the inspiration for the wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
After the war, Lowe retired to a life of invention in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Among his many patents, Lowe created an artificial refrigeration system that was a precursor to the modern-day refrigerator, which he tested by sending fruit on a steamship from New York to Galveston, Texas. Lowe then sought to perfect a process of harnessing gas for heating and lighting and insisted upon selling it cheaply, making it available to all rather than just the wealthy. The professor won countless awards, including the Elliott Cresson Medal for the “Invention Held to be Most Useful to Mankind,” which was awarded to the likes of Marie Curie, Henry Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell. For all his inventions and quirky character, some historians believe that it was Professor Lowe who had inspired the character Oz from The Wizard of Oz.

Lowe insisted that it was he who prompted the establishment of a U. S. Weather Bureau.
From his abundant experience in the skies and meteorological studies, Lowe realized the ability and significance of predicting the weather. He was “the first to suggest such a bureau for the making of weather forecasts,” knowing how revolutionary it would be, particularly for farmers and those who made their living at sea.(7) Though the Weather Bureau was not established until 1870, Lowe insisted that it was his observations during the war that made it possible.

He hobnobbed with California’s elite.
By 1890, Lowe had moved his family west to California, where he established several ice plants, a gas company, and the Citizen’s Bank of Los Angeles (later bought by the Crocker Bank and then absorbed by Wells Fargo). He built a massive home in Pasadena, ten miles north of Los Angeles, which he used to impress and entertain California’s most elite residents. Lowe became close friends with Andrew McNally, of the Chicago mapmaking company, Rand-McNally, as well as California’s Governor Markham. He befriended Collis Huntington, of the “Big Four” railroad magnates, and created a resort that was visited by millions, including Collis’ nephew, Henry Huntington and even Henry Ford. Lowe also worked with John Muir on the Yosemite Commission to endow it as a national park.

The Mount Lowe Railway’s Great Incline.

He created the world’s first electric incline railway and mountain resort.
On July 4, 1893, the anniversary of his running away from servitude, Lowe opened the world’s first electric incline railway. The railway provided transportation to a magnificent mountain resort that housed four hotels, as well as a zoo, dancehall, fox farm, and world-class restaurants, to name a few. Though Lowe was a great scientist and showman, he was not the best businessman and lost the Mount Lowe Railway a mere six years later. Mount Lowe remained open under different owners, including Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric, until 1936, after a series of natural disasters destroyed the hotels and much of the railway.

The Mount Lowe Railway inspired Disneyland.
After Mount Lowe’s closure, one of its fans approached railway historian Donald Duke about recreating the railway and resort. The idea was impossible, as the land then belonged to the Angeles National Forest, so the fan, Walt Disney, bought a large tract of land some thirty miles away in Anaheim. Disney built a few small railways of his own and opened the Disneyland resort in 1955. Those old enough to remember the Mount Lowe Railway all agreed that it had been “the Disneyland of its day.” (8)

His granddaughter beat Amelia Earhart and became the “Fastest Woman on Earth.”
When Lowe took his granddaughter, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, with him to the 1910 Dominguez Air Meet, he introduced her to a lifelong love of aeronautics. Ever rebellious, Pancho turned her back on life as a society girl, as her family wished, and began a career as a Hollywood stunt-woman. Pancho began by training the horses and doubling for starlets performing dangerous stunts, then began performing in airplanes. Pancho worked for some time as a pilot for Union Oil and formed the Mystery Air Circus, where she pulled stunts and parachuted from planes. Then, on August 4, 1930, at 197 miles-per-hour, Pancho beat Amelia Earhart and won the title, “Fastest Woman on Earth.”(9)

Thaddeus Lowe in his later years.

Though he made millions, Professor Lowe died virtually penniless and forgotten.
Lowe spent much of his own money building the Mount Lowe Railway and then sold most of his belongings and properties trying to save it from bankruptcy. When the Professor died in 1913, he left behind a few shares in a water company, $140, and several medals to his name.(10) After selling off the rest of his father’s belongings, Lowe’s son had to pay the remainder of his funeral expenses. The professor had been a man of many firsts, meeting many famous men to become famous in his own right, yet he died largely forgotten. Even the army failed to recognize his wartime efforts during his lifetime, only dedicating an Alabama airfield to him and etching his name into a Virginia monument half a decade after his death.

Sources

  1. Lowe, T.S.C. Memoirs of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States During the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War. Compiled by Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. p. 43.
  2. Lowe, T.S.C. Memoirs of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States During the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War. Compiled by Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. p. 58.
  3. Abraham Lincoln Papers: Series, General Correspondence. 1833–1916:Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, Sunday, June 16, 1861 (Telegraph from balloon)” Library of Congress. June 16, 1861.
  4. Poleskie, Stephen. The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe — Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 2007.p. 69.
  5. Block, Eugene B. Above the Civil War: the Story of Thaddeus Lowe, Balloonist, Inventor, Railway Builder. Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1996. p.60.
  6. Poleskie, Stephen. The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe — Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 2007.p. 155.
  7. Lowe, T.S.C. Memoirs of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States During the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War. Compiled by Michael Jaeger and Carol Lauritzen. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. p. 43.
  8. Patris, Michael A. and the Mount Lowe Preservation Society. Images of Rail: Mount Lowe Railway. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2007. p. 117.
  9. “About.” Pancho Barnes. Accessed May 09, 2019. http://panchobarnes.com/about/.
  10. “STATE OF NOTED SCIENTIST IS $140: Probate Will of Professor Lowe Shows Few Assets.” Sacramento Union, February 5, 1913.

Alyse Beale

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Historian. Writer. Artist.

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