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The Balloonist, The Story of T.S.C. Lowe, Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force.

From the prologue to THE BALLOONIST, by Stephen Poleskie

IT COULD BE ARGUED THAT the balloon was the most significant of mankind’s achievements. For the first time ever, a human being was able to leave the surface of the Earth and travel in the skies.

The French brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier had long been considered the originators of the hot-air balloon. However, recent research has revealed that on August 8, 1709, almost three-quarters of a century before the Montgolfiers, a Brazilian priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated a model hot-air balloon at the court of John V of Portugal. An artist of the time, Bernardino de Sousa Pereira, recorded the event in a painting now in the museum of the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to one Salvadoro Ferreira, who witnessed the feat, the small balloon was constructed of thick paper and inflated by hot air,the fire being contained in an clay bowl suspended below the neck of the envelope. Other reliable witnesses included: Queen Maria Anna, the Papal Nuncio, and Cardinal Conti, who later became Pope Innocent III. It was reported that the balloon reached a height of twelve feet before two panicked valets, fearing it would set the royal drapes on fire, used their staffs to batter the strange flying thing to the ground.

On April 25, 1783, the brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier, paper makers by trade, successfully flew their first balloon at Annonay near Lyons in France. Propelled by hot air from a wood and straw fire, the balloon was reported to have risen to a height of about 1000 feet and traveled horizontally 3000 feet before the hot air cooled and it fell to earth. They had begun their experiments years earlier with tiny paper bags and the smoke from their fireplace.

Two months later, the brothers gave another public demonstration at Annonay with an improved balloon that rose to a height of 6000 feet. This ascension was witnessed by a visiting American diplomat greatly interested in scientific discovery, Benjamin Franklin, who described the event in his journal. The success of this balloon resulted in a summons from the king himself, Louis XVI, who wished to see the new invention.

For their command performance the Montgolfiers constructed an even larger balloon, and hung a basket underneath it. In the basket would be the world’s first aerial voyagers: a cock, a duck, and a sheep.

This balloon was launched at Versailles on September 19, 1783 before the astonished gaze of King Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their court. The brightly decorated craft climbed to approximately 1800 feet, and, carried by the winds, flew two miles before coming down. When the balloon was found the cock was discovered to be somewhat the worse for his adventure. Learned minds of the time speculated that the cock, while admittedly a bird, but not used to flights higher than three feet, had been weakened by the great altitude to which the balloon had ascended. However, further investigation suggested that it was more likely that the poor fowl had been trampled on by the overly excited sheep.

King Louis was so impressed with the flight that he awarded the brothers the Order of Saint Michel. From that time on all hot-air balloons would bear the title montgolfieres.

Having demonstrated that it was safe for animals to venture into the skies, the Montgolfier brothers concluded that human beings should be next. The brothers constructed another, larger, balloon specifically for this purpose. This magnificent new balloon was over 49 feet in diameter, and superbly decorated in a blue and gold color scheme, emblazoned with the royal cipher, signs of the zodiac, eagles, and smiling suns. Below its neck was a wicker gondola capable of holding two men, and the fire necessary to keep the envelope inflated.

Louis XVI, worrying over the experiments success, proffered that a couple of prisoners, who had been sentenced to death, might volunteer to fly in the montgolfier if they were offered a chance of freedom. However, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, a man who had been a very active supporter of this project from the start, protested that the honor of being the first person to fly should not be given to a criminal.

Pilatre de Rozier won his argument and, on October 15,1783, made a tethered flight to a height of 85 feet. By carefully tending the straw fire in the gondola, the prototype aeronaut was able to remain airborne for a full four and one-half minutes.

Monsieur de Rozier was now ready to take up a passenger. On November 21,1783, de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes became the first men to be carried in free flight by a balloon. They made their ascent, before cheering crowds, from the garden of the Chateau La Muette in the Bois Boulogne, Paris. A southerly wind carried them five miles in 25 minutes, before the first aerial voyage in history ended in a farmer’s field. A dream of 5000 years had been realized; man had safely flown through the skies.

Unfortunately, two years later, on July 15,1785, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, the first man to fly, would also become the first man killed in a flying accident when a balloon he was using in an attempt to cross the English Channel, inflated with hot air and hydrogen, caught on fire and crashed in flames.

Despite their achievements the Montgolfier brothers, with their hot-air balloons, were beginning to feel competition from the phlogiston-filled balloons of Professor Jacques A. C. Charles. The lighter-than-air gas phlogiston would later be renamed hydrogen by the French chemist Lavoisier.

Benjamin Franklin, by then a rabid follower of the balloon experiments in France, had viewed Professor Charles’s launch. Franklin was dismayed to heard many of those in the crowd around him dismiss the balloon as being of no practical value. Even members of the French military present at the ascent failed to recognize the potential of lighter-than-air craft as an instrument of war. One officer remarked on the balloon’s qualities as an entertaining toy and laughingly asked, "Of what use is it?" Franklin, always quick to grasp the significance of any new invention, made his now-famous reply: "Sir, of what use is a new born baby?"

In the not too distant future, Napoleon Bonaparte, consummate dreamer as well as master military strategist, would become the first commander to recognize the possibilities of the airship as an instrument of war, and form an air corps using balloons.

However, after Napoleon’s experiments little further thought would be given to using balloons as part of a military strategy, even though the idea went back, at least on paper, to 1670. In that year the Jesuit priest, Father Francesco de Lana-Terzi designed a balloon-ship, which was the precursor of lighter-than-air craft. He doubted that God would ever allow it to be built as he perceived its immense capacity for destruction. With uncanny foresight, de Lana-Terzi described the ease with which his balloon-ship could bomb fortresses, fleets, and cities.

No nation would successfully establish a corps of war balloons until the American Civil War. This would be accomplished, although not without considerable opposition and difficulty, by the balloonist Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe. This unit, then called the U. S. Balloon Corps, would eventually become the U.S. Air Force.




By: Pamela Goddard Jul 2, 2007

"The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe - Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the US Air Force" by Stephen Poleskie. Published by Frederic C. Beil, Savannah, Georgia, May 2007.

"It could be argued that the balloon was the most significant of mankind's achievements. For the first time ever, a human being was able to leave the surface of the earth and travel in the skies."

Stephen Poleskie has published his first book and it is no coincidence that its subject is a man whose innovations contributed to the start of American aviation. Poleskie's creative career is closely tied to his creative adventures in the sky. From 1968 into the 1990s, this Ithaca-based artist and author created abstract drawings in the air by flying a biplane trailing smoke. Poleskie's "aerial theater" performance pieces were staged across Europe and the United States, sometimes accompanied by musicians and dancers on the ground.

Some wondered whether Poleskie was creating high art or simply a public spectacle. At the time, he maintained that "the view from the cockpit, the vast sense of space, compelled me to attempt to recreate the experience [of realist painting]. I stopped painting entirely and devoted myself to exploring the use of the airplane as a tool for making art."

Similarly, the story of inventor Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe is one of a man who blurred the boundaries between serious science and dramatic showmanship. During the 1860s, only a very few took his scientific theories seriously. Balloonists were on a par with magicians and carnival showmen. Thrilling entertainment, but not to be taken seriously.

Lowe was a visionary who accurately saw the value of aviation. His balloon innovations sprung from a curious, inventive mind. Poleskie begins his book with stories of how Lowe, fascinated by air currents as a child, watched the clouds float overhead and did more than daydream.

He began to see that different levels of the atmosphere travel in different directions. As an adult, Lowe used air currents to direct balloon flights in specific directions.

During the early 1860s, Lowe was preparing for a grand balloon trip across the Atlantic. The Civil War changed everything. With a desire to serve his country and to prove his theories at the same time, Lowe convinced President Lincoln of the value of a balloon Air Corps.

"The Balloonist" is filled with almost surreal scenes of Civil War battles as seen from above. Floating above encampments and battlefields, Lowe's balloon sent unprecedented information to earthbound generals. The sight of his balloon was a frequent annoyance to Confederate troops, making Lowe one of the most shot-at men in the Civil War.

Poleskie carefully details the vexing incompetence of officers who had no understanding of how balloon surveillance could be used to advantage, to change the course of the war. At the end of the Civil War, this shortsighted perspective was summed up when Secretary of War Stanton said that, "he could not see any 'practical utility' for the airship as the idea of using air power for military purposes was 'too remote.'"

Lowe, on the other hand, prophesied that, "The aircraft of the future will have nothing to do with balloons, but will be a kind of flying sled that can ride the air like a bird."

"The Balloonist" is difficult to categorize. Poleskie's book is somewhere between narrative story, documentary history, and biography. Poleskie uses personal experience and empathy to flesh out the story of this forgotten hero. Scientist, showman, family man, inventor, and humanist all contribute to Poleskie's portrayal of Lowe. Although this is not a glorified portrait, it's clear that Poleskie's sympathies are with Lowe. A reader might wonder, how much is fact and how much is fiction? Where does the historical record leave off and Poleskie's informed imagination begin?

While balloons float above everything, Poleskie maintains a close view of his subject. "The Balloonist" has a lot of detail, with minimal perspective or analysis. The reader can enjoy every real and imagined aspect of Lowe's ballooning experiences in the Civil War, but learns little about how this history fits into the bigger picture of aviation.

There are treasures in these details, and not the least is Poleskie's effort to uncover this fantastic story of a fantastic time. Like Lowe, Poleskie likes to push the envelope, explore what can be done, and create something new.


By Glynis Hart

AN EFFECT OF THE MODERN AGE, in which marketing algorithms produce custom ads that pounce on you every time you open your email, is that human beings, first divided into buyers and sellers, are now divided into ever-narrower market target categories. Netflix and Google eagerly jump on any indication of a buying preference; on the other end, people who produce creative works find themselves boxed in to marketing categories shaped by the hits and bestsellers of yesteryear. But human beings don’t fit into boxes. Creative people, even less.

Local author, artist, photographer and pilot Stephen Poleskie, having spent a life defying categorization, will be reading aloud from his biography of the 19th century genius Thaddeus Lowe on Thursday August 25, at the Tompkins County Public Library Borg Warner Room, 101 E. Green Street, Ithaca, beginning at 6 p.m.

“The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe---Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the U.S. Air Force” is both a historical novel, a factual account, a fun read for military and airplane buffs, and a plain old good read. Lowe, who got the Air Force off to a start during the Civil War by going up in a tethered balloon to spy on Rebel positions with his telescope, organized the Civil War’s Army of the Potomac Balloon Corps. He wasn’t alone; as with many great inventors, Lowe had to share the stage with the handful of rival balloonists who were trying to get their creations off the ground in the same era. Growing up rural and poor, Lowe got news of the outside world when the newspapers arrived at the local store. Balloon flight, first used in military application by Napoleon, was the space travel of the day, and a country boy like Lowe could look at the sky and dream of the day he might go there himself.

Before he could realize his dream, however, a breakthrough was reported. In 1844 The New York Sun announced that the transatlantic crossing by a balloonist- the object of the young Lowe’s dreams- had been achieved. The story was full of telling details about the new technology in use, and it seemed to the young would-be aeronaut that the last frontier had been breached. The story, written by a writer named Edgar Allan Poe, turned out to be a hoax that Poe had sold to the paper to support his young family. Poe went on to become the great author; Lowe went on to become “the most shot-at man in the Civil War.”

Poleskie seems to have trained his own telescope on the nineteenth century, so that details, such as the soldiers wrapping a tight cloth around their midsection believing it would prevent dysentery, or the pitchfork-wielding crowd that nearly hung a crash-landed Lowe for flying the Devil’s invention, present themselves to the mind’s eye with unusual clarity. The book works as an experience of immersion in the 1800s as well as a biography.

Lowe, for all his eccentric genius and drive, may be a kindred spirit to Poleskie himself, although Poleskie says that’s not why he wrote the book. His curiosity piqued by a connection his wife made, he looked Lowe up and decided, “There needs to be a new book on this guy.” “It’s curious,” says Poleskie. “Before, he was hard to find out about.” Having written stories, novels, and a play that was produced in the past, Poleskie threw himself into the research, wrote the book, and then set about trying to publish it.

“My wife has an agent,” says Poleskie, whose wife, Jeanne Mackin, is a writer. “If you write a book and then you get an agent – go that route – you talk to your agent, your publisher, and all of a sudden they want the book to go in a different direction than the one you had. And by the time you’re done you’ve had eight different people deciding different things about the book. I was told, ‘It’s a novel, but to have it be a novel you need more dialogue’ or ‘It’s a biography, but to have it be a biography you have to have footnotes.’ I didn’t want to change it. I didn’t put dialogue in on purpose, because I hate that, when you’re reading something that’s supposed to be in the nineteenth century and the characters are saying things like, ‘Yo, what’s up.’”

Poleskie found a small publisher for the book, which was to his advantage. Small independent publishers will keep a book in shelf for years; big publishers remainder a book after a month or two if it doesn’t hit the bestseller list. Although small publishers don’t have the advertising reach of the big ones, a book that sells itself, from reader to reader, like The Balloonist, can keep growing. First released in 2007, the book has been gaining ground ever since. Poleskie tracks the sales on Amazon: “The book is having a kind of revival,” he says.

It’s no wonder. Never having heard of Lowe, if I imagined how the air force started I might have come up with balloons but not much more. Although the author describes Lowe’s good looks and dapper presentation – he was an early publicity hound – Lowe’s dogged work ethic and commitment to his dream make him a refreshing hero. He often worked sixteen hour days; took terrible, freezing balloon rides before altitude sickness was understood; risked his life every time he went up, and seems to have counted the blessings of his lovely, dynamic French wife and several children without stint. He doesn’t come across as an anti-hero or an everyman, and although his ego was large, it seems to have been in proportion to what he could achieve. So this is not the find-the-dirt-on-the-famous-person sort of book that the marketing mavens think will sell millions to our lowest common denominator. It is, however, a gripper. Recommended.

From an article in THE ITHACA TIMES, August 24, 2011



Signing copies of THE BALLOONIST at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., June 2007.

From Four Reviews

POLESKIE TELLS HIS STORY with a rare combination of practical expertise (the author is an aviator himself), empathy, and poetic vividness. Describing Lowe's lingering horror at the carnage he witnessed, Poleskie writes "A violent spasm twitched his body. Once again he heard the boundless roar of cannon; saw the shattered bodies and the collapsing bridges; listened to the clumsy, gasping cries of drowning men; and the agonizing shriek of the wounded. Riderless horses wallowed in the mud along the banks snorting flames from their nostrils. Corpses, swollen to twice their size, ground out curses and blasphemies from their bloated mouths as they floated on the spume. Summoned by he did not know what, the whole ghastly parade assembled around him, marching skyward, a relentless invasion of his senses."
The Balloonist is full of similar, fictionalized passages, many of which are quite fine.

Nicholas Nicastro

Poleskie . . . offers a detailed, informative picture of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe (1832-1913). One of the first to see the strategic benefits of aviation, Lowe hovered over many battles in the American Civil War in his balloon. Poleskie writes in an engaging, fascinating style and does an excellent job of telling the story and discussing the "most shot at man of the Civil War." Lowe's life is detailed, and the specifics of the dedicated scientist and leader of . . . the Army of the Potomac's balloon Corps are given. Lowe's life differs from that of many other inventors and scientists . . . as as many of his inventions . . . never came to fruition due to politics or technology before its time. The book is well researched and very detailed. . . . Also discussed are the politics surrounding Lowe's contributions, and what came from his efforts.

E. J. Barton, Michigan State University in CHOICE, Nov. 2007

Every balloonist knows the name of Thaddeus Lowe. After reading Stephen Poleskie's The Balloonist, you'll know him more intimately than ever. Part Thomas Edison, part P. T. Barnum, T. S. C. Lowe's life unfolds in these pages like never before in a unique book that is both biography and historical novel.



POLESKIE'S BOOK PAINTS the whole 19th Century science and social experience with enough detail to make you feel you know what it was like to be there.

Betsy Rider - Williamsport (PA) Gazette

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Anna Maclean Blog Interview

Anna: Steve, I read your book THE BALLOONIST and found it quite fascinating. As you don’t normally write historical novels, I suppose my first question would be what got you interested in the Civil War, and especially the Balloon Corps?

Steve: Well, I suppose you could say that I got interested in the Civil War almost fifty years ago when I was living in Gettysburg, PA. One of my first real jobs was teaching in a public school there. I rented an old stone house out on the Baltimore Pike, which had stood during the battle and been used as a temporary hospital. The house was at the base of Culp’s Hill, which was the scene of much bloody fighting. I got the house for a very reasonable rent. People told me that the house was rarely occupied because it was supposed to be haunted. There were spots on the cellar floor that I was told was blood from the bodies that had been put down there.

Anna: So how did you discover you main character T.S.C. Lowe. He seems to be a person little known to history.

Steve: For many years I was a pilot. I even did things in the sky flying an airplane trailing smoke. Then one day I came across the name of this man I had never heard of who was supposed to be “the father of the U.S. Air Force,” so I looked him up. The more I read about him the more fascinated I became. He was not just a balloonist but a visionary and inventor, who invented many of the practical things we still use today.

Anna: Can you give us a brief summary of THE BALLOONIST?

Steve: The book begins with Thaddeus S. C. Lowe attempting to build a balloon that would carry passengers from New York to London. Through flash backs it tells the life story a boy who had less than a high school education and ran away from home, joined a magic show, gave himself the title of “professor,” and eventually convinced President Lincoln to establish a balloon observation corps, with him as the head. He married a famous French actress, and made and lost, several fortunes with his inventions. After the war he moved to California, where he founded a railroad, and built a resort and America’s first observatory on a mountain which would be named for him. Unfortunately these, like his other enterprises, did not work out financially. He died in poverty.

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