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THE INTREPID PROFESSOR: Uncle Sam's First Airman

"I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country"

​- Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to President Abraham Lincoln

Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was a self-taught scientist and one of the country's most famous aeronauts. His grand plan to fly an aerial balloon across the Atlantic was shelved by the outbreak of the Civil War.

One of his test flights, in the spring of 1861, took him into Confederate territory, where he was nearly killed under suspicion of being a spy for the Union. Returning to the North, he offered his services to the federal government.

President Abraham Lincoln, a fan of new technology, was impressed by the idea of using balloons to survey battlefields and spot enemy troop formations. Lincoln appointed Lowe to lead a novel military organization, the Union Army's Balloon Corps.

The Balloon Corps continued until Professor Lowe resigned in 1863. Though his work was generally successful, it was not fully appreciated by all members of the military, and disputes over his operations and pay scale forced his resignation. His efforts, however, marked the first time the U.S. military attempted flight and his concept of aerial observation was proven to be extremely valuable in future conflicts.

Lowe returned to the private sector and continued his scientific exploration of hydrogen gas manufacturing. He invented the water gas process by which large amounts of hydrogen gas could be produced from steam and charcoal. His inventions and patents on this process and ice making machines made him a millionaire. Mount Lowe, in California, was named in his honor after he became the first man to summit the mountain and plant the American flag at its peak, as well as for building the Mount Lowe Railway to its base in 1896. In 1887, Lowe moved to Los Angeles and in 1890 to Pasadena, California, where he built a 24,000 square foot (2200 m2) mansion. He started a water-gas company, founded the Citizens Bank of Los Angeles, established several ice plants, and bought a Pasadena opera house.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe died in Pasadena on January 16, 1913 but his legacy is far from forgotten. The Mount Lowe Railway was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 6, 1993, and the mountain itself still bears his name. He is a member of the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and Lowe Army Heliport at Fort Rucker, Alabama is named in his honor. He even slid into contemporary popular culture as Stuart Whitman immortalized the intrepid professor on the big screen in the movie High Flying Spy, produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1972.

About Our Collection:

Our ode Professor Lowe collects an assortment of signed, handwritten letters, payment vouchers, promissory notes and other ephemera relating to his various successful post Civil War business ventures; topics center on partnerships, investments, finances, shipping and the like. Also available is vintage photography and other promotional items relating to Mount Lowe, California as a tourist destination. 

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JG Autographs