Conquering the Atmosphere: Lowe’s Planet Airship

Regional History

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As a young man, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe had come close to conquering the earth’s atmosphere. In 1860, the self-taught engineer, inventor, and aeronaut flew his “mammoth airship”—a 130-foot diameter balloon, capable of lifting twenty-two tons—sixty miles from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. After this successful test flight, Lowe dreamed of flying the airship across the Atlantic, or even around the globe. But it was not to be. Before his next flight, a gust tore open the balloon’s fabric. A more daunting navigational problem dogged him, anyway: with no means of propulsion, Lowe’s airship would always be at the wind’s mercy.

The next year, he learned how dangerous that could be. On April 20, 1861, Lowe took off from Cincinnati in a smaller balloon, the Enterprise, intending to ride the air currents to Washington, DC. Nine hours later, he landed in South Carolina—exactly one week after rebel forces had captured Fort Sumter. Arrested as a Yankee spy, Lowe eventually convinced his captors he was merely a man of science. He was released and returned north.

Lowe’s misadventure chastened him, but the atmosphere still beckoned. During the Civil War, Lowe served as the Union Army’s chief aeronaut, providing aerial reconnaissance on Confederate forces from thousands of feet above the battlefield. In the 1890s, Lowe built his great Railway to the Clouds on the mountain slopes above Pasadena. 

It was the advent of the automobile, of all things, that convinced Lowe to reach yet again for the sky. The internal combustion engine, it occurred to Lowe, could provide just the propulsion needed to navigate the atmosphere reliably. And so in 1910, he proposed his Lowe Planet Airship, a boat-like vessel suspended from a colossal hydrogen balloon, with two gasoline-powered propellers—for forward motion, the other for lift and steerage. The globular shape of the balloon made his design much more maneuverable than the oblong Zeppelins Germany was then turning out, and the lack of a rigid skeleton meant it could be folded for easy storage and shipping. Designed to circumnavigate the globe, it could stay afloat for a year and would feature all the creature comforts of a passenger train, including an observation deck, dining room, and berths for 40 passengers. Lowe worked out all the details, down to the engine exhaust that would warm the cabin and provide heat for cooking.

Convinced that his Planet Airship was the future of transportation, Lowe advertised widely and published a fifty-page booklet titled The Latest Development in Aerial Navigation, all in hopes of attracting deep-pocketed investors. He envisioned his aircraft circling the globe, exploring the polar regions, mapping uncharted waters. He even declared that his invention, given its twenty-ton hauling capacity, would revolutionize mining operations. Alas, his grand ambitions made investors shy. The money never materialized, and Lowe died three years later, destitute. His Planet Airship never left Earth.

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