Skip to main content
T.S. Lowe Ascent
Main Category
Sub Category
Date Created
38.8865608, -77.0221875
National Mall at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum
600 Independence Ave SW
Washington, D.C.

T.S.C. Lowe’s Observation Flight

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe demonstrated the use of a hydrogen-filled balloon in aerial reconnaissance through a series of tethered ascents in June, 1861 in front of the Washington Armory, which sat on the site now occupied by the National Air and Space Museum. His most significant ascent took place on June 16, 1861, when along with telegrapher Herbert Robinson and George Burns, Robinson’s supervisor at the telegraph company, Lowe ascended to a height of 500 feet, from which they transmitted a telegraph to the White House describing their view of an “area near fifty miles in diameter.” The success of the demonstration flight garnered the enthusiastic support of President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan, leading to the adoption of balloon reconnaissance by the Union Army and the creation of its Balloon Corps. The first reconnaissance balloon, the Union, entered service on August 2, 1861.

The design and manufacture of portable hydrogen fuel generators allowed the Balloon Corps to operate away from metropolitan areas, and the Corps expanded to seven balloons in size, playing a prominent role in several battles during the early course of the Civil War. The first use of balloon reconnaissance came on September 24, 1861, with Lowe ascending to 1,000 feet to observe Confederate troops based in Falls Church, Va. Throughout 1862 the Union Army again used the balloons for reconnaissance missions and to direct artillery fire, most notably at the battle of Fair Oaks, Va., and the siege of Yorktown, Va. In April, 1863, balloon reconnaissance was used to transmit hourly reports on enemy troop movements in the lead-up to the Battle of Chancellorsville. Beside providing intelligence on the Confederacy’s troop strength and positions, use of the balloons also forced Confederate commanders to create dummy encampments and false gun emplacements in an effort to mislead the observers in the balloons, taking time away from actual battle preparation.

Lowe’s reconnaissance program was successful, but short-lived. After General George McClellan was relieved of his command of the Union army in 1862, the Balloon Corp’s funding was cut, curtailing operations. Lowe resigned from the Balloon Corps on May 8, 1863, and the Corps itself was disbanded in August of that year.

Image Caption
View of balloon ascension. Prof. Thaddeus Lowe observing the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks from his balloon "Intrepid" on the north side of the Chicahominy.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.