Aiming high electricity transmission costs


His career began by accident. At the age of 18 he attended a lecture on lighter-than-air gases. The lecturer was so impressed by his enthusiasm that he offered to take Lowe on tour with him as his assistant. After two years, the touring assistant became a touring lecturer, making his way here and there around the country, speaking to audiences and beguiling them with clever demonstrations.

In an Ohio town, the beguiler became the beguiled, when he was smitten by the sight of a beautiful young woman in the audience. His love object was the young actress Leontine Gachon, a native Parisian, whose father brought his family to America after the overthrow of French monarch Louis Phillipe. It was a made-for-Hollywood case of mutual love at first sight, and after a whirlwind courtship of a week they were married Feb. 14, 1855.

In Hoboken, N.J., Lowe constructed a balloon capable of doing that, with a bag large enough to hold 500,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. His efforts attracted the attention of scientists at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute who secured the financial backing for this elaborate expedition.

Investors were found but, despite a successful test run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, N.J., the men hesitated. To convince them would require a longer flight. Lowe’s next step was to consult with Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who was hailed as America’s outstanding scientist.

Lowe arrived in Cincinnati near the end of March 1861. His balloon was inflated and everything made ready for a quick departure for which he needed the wind’s cooperation. The winds were reluctant, keeping the expedition grounded for several weeks.

On the night of April 19, he was the guest of honor at a banquet during which word came that the winds were blowing hard. Instant action followed. With no time to change clothes, Lowe went to the balloon in his formal evening attire. Provisions consisted of, in Lowe’s words, “quantities of delicacies from the banquet table,” and a “large jug of hot coffee” swaddled in layers of blankets.

Lowe continued, “When I was already, still wearing my long silk hat and clad in my broadcloth sack coat…” the lines were cast off and he rose slowly into the night sky. There was a breeze blowing from the east as the balloon climbed, so that it was last seen heading to the northwest, the exact opposite of the intended direction. This development gave the usually confident Lowe a jolt and he confessed that “my feelings could hardly be analyzed.”

He didn’t have long to worry because at a height of a little more than a mile he “shot out of the westerly currents and entered the great easterly river of the sky.” His vindication brought a spirit of triumph and he “could have cheered in (his) elation.”

As well as food and extra clothing, Lowe had a barometer and altimeter that allowed him to keep track of the balloon’s altitude. According to his account, at one point the air currents carried him as high as 18,000 feet where, according to the U.S. Standard Atmosphere Heights and Temperatures, the thermometer stands at 5 degrees below 0 Farenheit and there is only 10.5 percent oxygen in the air.

Lowe finally landed his balloon at Pea Ridge, S.C. He had traveled about 900 miles in nine hours. The math is easy. He averaged about 100 miles per hour at a time when the average person had never traveled at a speed of more than 10 miles per hour.

He landed in a mountainous, backward area of South Carolina and the sight of that huge balloon slowly dropping out of the sky made the residents frightened and angry. In minutes he was surrounded by a group of men carrying shotguns who were inclined to kill him. But after some hasty explanations an uneasy truce was reached and the frightened mountaineers agreed to haul him and his balloon to Union, a town that is now on U.S. 17 northwest of Columbia.

Another threatening crowd soon gathered. They – and who can blame them — refused to believe that Lowe had left Cincinnati that morning until he showed them copies of a Cincinnati newspaper bearing the day’s date. After the locals wrapped their heads around that idea he went from being a possible witch, a creature from outer space or a Yankee spy (the Civil War had begun April 12, less than two weeks earlier) to a hero.

Off he went to Washington to demonstrate his point. The hidebound professional commanders of the Army weren’t interested in what Lowe had to offer. However, Abraham Lincoln was. In late July, Lincoln, with Lowe in tow, paid a personal visit to Winfield Scott, the Army’s commander, and informed the aging general that he was “to facilitate (Lowe’s) work in every way.”

The President’s prodding produced instant results. That same day the Army’s aeronautic corps was created. When fully established it consisted of six balloons, each with a pilot, two assistant pilots, a ground crew, and military escort. Lowe constructed the balloons at his shops in Philadelphia and invented a portable generator that could manufacture enough hydrogen in the field so balloons didn’t have to be sent back to Washington to be re-inflated.

Despite some early success, the balloonists were never accepted by the Army. Lowe resigned in 1863 when a mere captain, Cyrus Comstock, informed him that his salary would be cut from $10 a day in gold to $3 per day in specie. Lowe, who couldn’t absorb the loss of income, resigned. He served without pay during the Battle of Chancellorsville. When the battle ended on May 7, 1863, Lowe resigned from the corps.

At the close of 1863, Lowe moved his family to a farm in Chester County along the Pickering Creek. Three years later they were in Norristown because from there it was easy to reach Philadelphia, where he still had a business, and to New York City.

Lowe put his aeronaut days behind and turned his fertile mind and vast energy to other fields. Though all were successful from a scientific point, some failed financially. However, Lowe hit the jackpot in 1873 when he invented and patented the water gas process, an efficient way to create large amounts of hydrogen gas for use in commercial and residential heating and lighting. By 1879 he was producing and selling water gas in more than 30 cities and his process was adopted in many foreign countries.

By 1888 Lowe was in his mid-50s. His post-Army inventions had made him a wealthy man. At this point, still troubled by the malaria he had picked up during the war, he thought it was time to move on and, perhaps, the warm, dry climate of southern California would help him deal with his illness.

Lowe invested his fortune in the project and lost heavily in the Depression of 1893. Undaunted, he found other projects. In 1911, the 79-year-old man traveled back to Norristown in hopes of recruiting investors for another business venture. While there he fell and broke his hip and never walked again. He died in California on Jan. 16, 1913. In his honor flags in the state were flown at half-staff.