Thaddeus was born on Aug. 20, 1832 in a small town now called Jefferson in northern New Hampshire, a short distance from the Canadian border. Even though his father, Clovis, was both the town cobbler and the local grocery clerk, the family could not make ends meet. At the age of 11, due to the family’s financial status, young Thaddeus was “bound out” to a farmer and his family in a nearby village, where Thaddeus worked the farm with the farmer’s children, much like a servant who is indentured. In exchange for his work, he was fed meals and given a bed to sleep in. There was only one book in the farmer’s house, the Bible, and a young Thaddeus Lowe read that Bible by the light of the only candle in the house each night before he went to bed.
Thaddeus did not like the farm. One day he took off from the field he was working and did not look back until he reached his old familiar front door. Thaddeus was happy to be home and back in school, feeding a newfound love of and curiosity about botany and chemistry and geology. This was a time of invention all around the world. Dirigibles and blimps hit the skies, and there was even word of a proposed transatlantic crossing in a boat suspended from a lighter-than-air balloon. A young Thaddeus pictured building such a boat one day and sailing it through the skies above his little New Hampshire home. Little did he know at the time that his 12-year-old boy’s dreams would make him the first pilot in, and the founder of, the United States Air Force.
In 1845, 13-year-old Thaddeus was intrigued by the use of balloons to drop bombs in Mexico’s revolutionary war. One of Thad’s teachers noticed the young man’s curiosity and gave him a book on Napoleon, where he learned the French Commander had used four balloons back in 1794 for military observation of both troop movements and artillery spotting. The balloons had performed well and gave Napoleon an advantage in battles. One of these balloons was named “Intrepide”. Young Thaddeus would keep this name in his head for a decade before his own Intrepid took flight to make similar observations for Union Army generals in the War Between the States.
While Thaddeus continued his schooling, his older brother left Jefferson for a cobbler’s apprenticeship in Boston. At 15, a bored Thaddeus decided it was time to pack his few things and the ten dollars he had saved and run away again. This time, it was to Boston, to be an apprentice and work beside his brother as he learned his father’s trade. After a queasy sail in an ocean-going ship, Thaddeus arrived in Boston only to find that his apprenticeship was further south in Hingham, Massachusetts. Although he did not have his brother’s company after all, he proved to be a good apprentice. The master cobbler noticed his love of books and adjusted Thad’s schedule to allow him to continue attending school.
Sixteen-year-old Thaddeus conducted his first experiment in 1848. He decided to study the effect of a higher atmosphere on animals, by attaching a caged dog to a kite. He gathered his schoolmate friends to help him with the huge kite. When word got out that a boy was going to raise a dog with a kite, many local townsfolk showed up at the local athletic field to watch. Poor Thaddeus was in a pickle when the dog he was supposed to use was no longer available. He had to think quickly and run even quicker to get back to the cobbler shop and capture the shop’s fat black tomcat. He grabbed the cat, raced back to the field, got the cat into the cage and attached a small lantern to the outside of it as night was now falling. Six boys grabbed hold of a 1,000-foot line marked off with buttons every ten feet. This allowed Thaddeus to know the height of the kite by counting the buttons as the line was let out. At 1,000 feet, the six boys were struggling with and being pulled around by the kite, so Thaddeus tied it off to a stake in the ground. Then he went to several vantage points around town to view the kite and cage from different perspectives. Finally they lowered the kite to see how the cat was doing, and found him growling furiously in a corner of the cage. As soon as he opened the door the scared cat bolted, and a crestfallen Thaddeus realized he had caused the cat’s state of fear. He vowed to never again use an animal in a test and was relieved when the cat came to him and purred when he was at his workbench the next day.
In 1850 Thaddeus turned 18 and went to work with a chemist who worked with hydrogen, the gas used in balloons of the day. Professor Dincklehoff (all chemists working with gasses at the time were called “Professor”) would travel the country, charging admission for people to watch him raise his balloons and explain the process behind the balloon’s lift and movement. Thaddeus was on tour with him for two years and developed some parts of the show himself.
Lowe’s experience in this traveling show taught him the thrill of single-handedly capturing a crowd and helped him gain a deep understanding of prevailing and reliable wind currents at different levels of height in the atmosphere. Knowing that air currents traveled in different directions depending on their height, he could send balloons of two different colors aloft, and predict that all the red balloons would go in one direction and all the blue in the opposite. The demonstration never failed and was a hit with the gasping audience. (What the crowd didn’t realize was that the balloons were different weights, depending on how much or what kind of gas they contained. As red balloons were lighter and blue balloons were heavier, they would rise to different heights and be blown in different directions by the prevailing air current.)
He reasoned that if he could raise and lower a dirigible to catch these currents of air, he could precisely navigate his balloon and land miles away in a predicted area. By 1855, he was giving his own lectures on the subject. When he arrived in New York, he caught the attention of a beautiful, petite brunette who was equally impressed with the dashing young professor who knew all about the chemistry of making gasses and putting man in the sky safely. Her name was Leontine Augustine Gashon, and she would soon become his wife.