The Smartest Man You Never Heard of

This week I got to spend a few hours burning CDs for the Mount Lowe Preservation Society, Inc., which reminded me how interesting that place is. So I’m gonna bore you with some details.

The reason for telling you all this is that there are probably some places near you that are every bit as interesting as Mount Lowe, build by people every bit as interesting as Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, and you probably don’t know about them either, and maybe this will nudge you to go find them. Aside from that, there’s the fact that T.S.C. Lowe is probably the smartest man you never heard of.

Thaddeus Lowe was born in New Hampshire in 1832. His family was very poor, to the point that he was handed over to a neighboring farm as a child, there to work as a farmhand. While working to earn his keep, he noticed that clouds at a certain altitude always moved east at a consistent speed, even when clouds at lower altitudes were moving west. From this he reasoned that there must be an air current that traveled in that direction consistently. He figured that if a person were able to get to that altitude, the wind stream would carry him across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. He determined to try it, and that began his interest in ballooning. At 11, he ran away from the farm and made his way to Portland, Maine, the largest and closest city to the area, 100 miles away. It took him two years to reach Portland. The main reason he left was that the family he had been given to refused to allow him any schooling. They had no books, and considered him a servant with too much to do to waste time filling his head with idle nonsense like an education.

Eventually, after working as a cobbler and other jobs, Lowe became the assistant to a traveling showman named Professor Reginald P. Dincklehoff, who performed an exhibition of science and magic. Part of the show involved the creation of hydrogen by putting metal filings into sulfuric acid, then using the gas to make soap bubbles that remained in the air until they popped. A couple of years later, he bought out the show, eventually earning enough to settle in New York and pursue more formal studies in science, especially ballooning and aeronautics.

By 1857 he was earning his living as a balloonist. Along the way, he experimented with various ideas to help in his plan to cross the Atlantic. One of those was the altimeter. Soon orders for his invention from across the country kept a crew of workers busy.

Later, while using the portable hydrogen factory that he had invented to inflate his balloons, he noticed that the compressor tended to freeze over. Most people would have tried to find a way to prevent that. Lowe instead decided to find a use for this discovery, and invented refrigeration, eventually becoming very wealthy from the patents he held, which included the refrigerated steamship and refrigerated railway car to transport perishables, and the ice companies he established.

In 1861, Lowe flew his balloon on a 900-mile journey from Cincinnati to South Carolina, arriving a week after the fall of Fort Sumpter. He was arrested as a Union spy, but convinced them of his innocence. Upon his return to Cincinnati, he was contacted by President Lincoln, and was commissioned as an officer, deploying his balloon to observe Confederate troop movements. The Air Corps he founded eventually became the U.S. Air Force. During this time, he came up with the idea of launching his balloon from the deck of a boat. This way, he could sail down rivers and ascend closer to the enemy in unexpected locations. So he invented the aircraft carrier. He also brought along the newfangled camera and took photos of the terrain, inventing aerial photography.

After the war, Lowe pursued his ice business, expanded into gas production, and made a lot of money. By 1887, he moved to Pasadena and “retired.” That is, he shifted his attention from the gas and refrigeration businesses and on to astronomy. First, though, he needed a place to put all the money he’d made (he was on his third or fourth fortune by this point), so he founded Citizen’s Bank, which is still in operation.

Upon hearing that a New York observatory was surrounded by too many lights and becoming unusable, he agreed to rebuild one atop Echo Mountain in the foothills above Pasadena. This led to his becoming one of the founders of the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech for short. While making preparations for the observatory, Lowe met David McPherson, an engineer, who had a plan for an incline railway to ascend the mountains. Lowe agreed to build it. In 1894, he built Echo Mountain House, a 12-room hotel at the top of the mountain. Later this expanded to an entire resort, including a zoo. The railway continued on for another four miles or so to Mount Lowe (formerly Oak Mountain) and Ye Alpine Tavern.

Between 1893 and 1936, an estimated 3,100,000 people rode the Mt. Lowe Railway to these destinations, which became the most popular tourist attraction west of the Mississippi, the Disney World of its day. Among these visitors were Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, along with all the glitterati of the day.

Unfortunately, the railroad and hotels cost more to build than they brought in. This depleted Lowe’s fortune, and the final length of track, intended to reach the peak of Mt. Lowe, was never built. Lowe died in 1913, and the railway was sold to the Huntingtons’ Pacific Electric Railway Company. It closed down in 1937, and today only the foundations of the buildings remain. You can read all about it at the page I linked above.

At some point along the way, Professor Lowe took his young granddaughter, Florence Lowe Barnes, to an airshow. She was fascinated by the planes, and eventually became a pilot herself. You might have heard of her. She was better known by her nickname, Pancho Barnes.

Anyway, I was burning CDs of music composed about Mt. Lowe: The Mount Lowe March, Pacific Electric Trolley Waltz (two versions), and The Echo Mountain Schottische. If you want to hear them, go to the Mount Lowe Preservation Society’s music page and give a listen.

There, now you know something you didn’t know before. Ain’t knowledge grand?

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