An excerpt from Stephen Poleskie's novel THE BALLOONIST, The Story of T. S. C. Lowe, Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U. S.
To pitch his balloon program, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the consummate showman, convinced some of the more venturesome of Washington’s government and army men to go aloft with him on his demonstration flights. Tethered half a mile above the Mall as the gondola swung with the wind, Lowe’s more often than not terrified passengers usually clung bare-knuckled to the sides of the fragile wicker basket. The balloonist, accustomed to the swaying, cut a brave figure as he stood there, balanced, looking through his telescope, pointing out the Federal fortifications along the river from Chain Bridge south to Alexandria.
Soldiers could be seen digging breastworks into the dull red clay of a flowering countryside. From below the sounds of drums floated up as companies of infantry drilled with military precision between the long rows of tents. Lowe knew that no matter how frightened the man in the basket next to him might be at the moment, tonight at a fashionable dinner party he would tell a different story, speaking only of the wondrous vista he had seen, and of the clear advantage the balloon presented as a vehicle for military reconnaissance.
As successful as these demonstration ascensions were, they were mere rehearsals for the flight Professor Lowe planned as his piece de resistance. He proposed to take aloft a telegraph operator, with a long wire attached to the ground. From his high altitude, supposedly overlooking hostile territory, the balloonist planned to demonstrate how he could telegraph back to headquarters a description of the enemy’s position. This information could be used by draftsmen on the ground to create a virtual map of the foe’s deployment.
The morning of June 18,1861 dawned bright and clear with a calm wind. Larks fluttered in the branches of the trees, as the clouds slowly dragged their shadows across the Mall. It was the perfect day for the spectacular ascension Lowe was planning from the Columbian Armory (now significantly the site of the National Air and Space Museum). This was the flight he had announced would be dramatically different from all his previous ones. In the basket with the balloonist was Mr. Herbert Robinson, a telegraph operator who would transmit Lowe’s message, and Mr. George McDowell, in charge of the equipment lent for the occasion by the American Telegraph Company. A half-mile of telegraph wire trailed down the Enterprise’s tether rope to another operator on the cool green lawn.
Carried on the lips of the curious, the news rapidly spread throughout Washington that a telegraph message was to be sent from Lowe’s observation balloon to the ground. Crowds gathered in the street to witness the event. With the naked eye, onlookers could just make out Lowe in his basket, surveying the enemy entrenchments laid out beyond the Potomac River, his spyglass sweeping in a wide arc across the landscape with a grand showman’s gesture. Then the balloonist began to dictate.
The people on the ground had become silent. Suddenly, an excitement spread through the crowd as the spectators down front heard the first tentative clicking of the Morse code signal transmitted down from the balloon above being received by the operator in front of the armory.The ground operator rapidly tapped out an answer on his own keys. A shout went up. The experiment was a success. This became the first time in history that a telegram had been transmitted from the sky to the ground. Professor Lowe sent the following message to President Lincoln:
Balloon Enterprise, in the Air
June 18, 1861
To His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States
From this point of observation we command an extent of county nearly fifty miles in diameter. I have the pleasure of sending you this first telegram ever dispatched from an aerial station, and acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the service of the country, I am your excellency’s obedient servant.
The ground operator sent up a message that the reception was perfect. An formal announcement of the successful link up was made, and everyone cheered again. Encouraged by his accomplishment, Lowe and his assistants stayed aloft for the better part of an hour, sending and receiving messages that were relayed to various points including the War Department, General Winfield Scott, Alexandria, Virginia, and the balloonist’s wife Leontine back in Philadelphia. For Lowe it was a masterpiece of public relations, greatly strengthening his position as chief candidate for the yet to be created position of head of the aeronautical corps. But there was still much more to be gotten out of this show.
Signaling his crew, Lowe had the Enterprise hauled closer to the ground. Then, with the three men still in the basket, and enthusiastically waving small U.S. flags, the balloon was towed, bobbing in triumph, through the streets now lined with wildly cheering crowds to the White House. There President Lincoln greeted the balloon group from out a second-story window. After shaking hands with the president, Lowe had the basket lowered to the ground, and the still inflated balloon moored on the White House lawn. Upon disembarking, the ebullient Lowe found a personal note of congratulations waiting for him from Abraham Lincoln, and an invitation to supper.
That evening a triumphant T. S. C. Lowe, trying his best to restrain his hyperbole, dined with the president and several members of the cabinet. When the meal was finished, the president remarked that he was extremely interested in Lowe’s scheme for organizing a corps of observation balloons. Lincoln requested that the balloonist remain after the others had departed. The president indicated he wanted to discuss the time it would take to get the corps operational and details of its employment. He was especially intrigued by Lowe’s plan to direct the fire of artillery from the air, thereby enabling gunners to shell targets they could not even see.
Lincoln and Lowe talked well into the night. As the hour was rather late and, despite all the military presence, Washington was not the safest town, the president suggested to Lowe he was welcome to stay at the White House. Honored to be the president’s guest T. S. C. Lowe readily accepted the invitation. President Lincoln, wearied with the cares of the Nation, showed the balloonist to his room and said good night. Although the bed was larger, and more comfortable than the one in his room at the National Hotel, and he was tired from the toil and excitement of the day, Lowe did not sleep well. He lay in bed staring at the ceiling excited by, and yet fearful of, the prospect of becoming the founder, and head, of a new branch of the military service.
copyright © 2006 Stephen Poleskie
The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe, Click on the above for more information about the book and the author.
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force
by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: January 2007
The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Click on the above for more information about the book and the author.