Thaddeus Lowe was interested in “getting high,” even in the early years of his youth. Born in 1832 Lowe had little formal education, but styled himself an “aeronaut,” or balloon pilot. His theories on air currents and balloon travel led him to believe he could navigate a balloon to any geographical point by choosing the appropriate altitude where the wind would blow in the direction he desired to travel. After a number of successful ascents in a balloon of his own construction, he undertook a voyage from Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 20, 1861, to test his theories.
As with most geniuses, Lowe paid little attention to the momentous political events of 1861. When his craft landed in a field near the border of North and South Carolina, and 900 miles from Cincinnati, he was quickly introduced to the Civil War. He was immediately surrounded by a mob who thought him a Union spy. Fortunately for Lowe, he was arrested by the local authorities before the mob could demonstrate to him their method for getting Yankee aeronauts airborne: lynching.
When finally released by his Confederate captors, Lowe decided to investigate the military possibilities of ballooning. In Washington that June, he demonstrated a reconnaissance balloon to President Lincoln and military brass. Ever the showman, Lowe sent a telegraph message from the balloon’s gondola to the amazed President.
Lincoln, obviously impressed, appointed Lowe Aeronautics Corps chief and head of production and operation of military observation balloons.
As “chief aeronaut” Lowe soon met John A. Dahlgren, commander of the Washington Navy Yard and another born genius. Dahlgren was the designer of the famous “Dahlgren gun,” which had revolutionized warfare a decade earlier.
With Navy funds, Dahlgren and Lowe obtained an 80-by-15-foot coal barge to accommodate an on-board reconnaissance balloon, hangar, winches, and a gas-generating plant to produce hydrogen gas from iron filings and sulfuric acid. The resulting “balloon ship,” christened George Washington Parke Custis, became the U.S. Navy’s first true aircraft carrier (maybe that should be “lighter-than-air”-craft carrier).On Nov. 11, 1861, the sophisticated vessel was towed to a tributary of the Potomac River. The balloon was inflated and slowly winched out to its 1,000-foot operational ceiling to begin observing and reporting Confederate troop movements just three miles away. By war’s end, Lowe and company had made numerous successful ascents (evidently they were all non-smokers).
Unfortunately for marine aviation, Lowe lost interest in ballooning after the war and became passionately involved with new scientific interests, including the production of artificial ice and construction of an inclined railway on a mountain in California. George Washington Parke Custis was decommissioned and returned to its coal-carrying duties.
On August 3, 1861, balloonist John LaMountain observed Confederate batteries on Sewell’s Point, Va., from a hot-air balloon launched from the U.S.S. Fanny. Some naval historians may claim that this event makes Fanny the first real aircraft carrier. But Fanny was not exclusively a launching platform for balloons and performed other naval duties during the war, whereas the George Washington Parke Custis was modified and employed exclusively as a balloon-launching vessel.