The US Air Force Turns 150 Years Old

Improbable historical fact: The first electronic communication from the earth's atmosphere was transmitted from the deck of the Enterprise to Abraham Lincoln. (Now that was fun to write.)

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We shouldn’t let this month go by without honoring what may be the 150th birthday of the United States Air Force. On June 17, 1861, the first use of an aircraft for military purposes was demonstrated before an appreciative Abraham Lincoln. According to the Post‘s coverage:

The other afternoon, the long-promised balloon ascension for military purposes took place. The elevation attained was not very great [500 feet], though it was perfectly satisfactory as an experiment. The aeronauts were Prof. Lowe, Gen. Burns, of the Telegraph Company, and H.C. Robinson, operator.

Thaddeus Lowe had spent years touring and lecturing on balloon flight in America and Europe. Just months before, he had attempted to fly his balloon from Cincinnati to the east coast. Unfortunately, he came down in Unionville, South Carolina, a distinctly anti-Union town. Local authorities of the recently seceded state arrested him as a spy. He was released only when he convinced the authorities he was flying for scientific, not military, purpose.

Lincoln’s Secretary of War saw the military potential just as quickly as the South Carolina authorities. He summoned Lowe to Washington to demonstrate how a lighter-than-air craft could allow observers to instantly report the movement and disposition of the enemy.

The balloon was connected with the War department by telegraph. The first message ever telegraphed from a balloon was then sent to the United States by Prof. Lowe. It was as follows: —

View of balloon ascension: Prof. Thaddeus Lowe observes the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks from his balloon “Intrepid” on the north side of the Chicahominy, 1862. Mathew Brady Collection.

Balloon Enterprise,

Washington, June 17

“To the President of the U. States:

SIR: This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene. I take great pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station, and in acknowledging  my indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.

Yours, respectfully,

T. S. C. Lowe

Mr. Lincoln was very much pleased with the experiment, and endorsed it as certain to prove of great value in military movements.

Washington June 19.— Prof. Lowe made another balloon ascension this morning, and was, as before, provided with means of telegraphing his reconnoisances. He distinctly saw the rebel encampments at Fairfax Court House. The result of his discoveries remains a secret with the authorities of the War Department. President Lincoln also made an ascension. The telegraph wire runs up to the balloon, where an operator is stationed, and thus puts the aeronaut and War Department in constant communications.

If this last statement is to be trusted, Abraham Lincoln might have earned the further distinction of being the first sitting president to fly.

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  1. Actually, the first ‘official’ flight in the U.S. took place on January 9, 1793.
    On that day, Jean Pierre Blanchard demonstrated the potential of manned flight by sailing his hot-air balloon from the Walnut Street prison in Philadelphia. Hours later, he landed in Woodbury, New Jersey, where he was immediately surrounded by local citizens, who received him with apprehension and guns.
    Blanchard reassured them by holding out to them a bottle of wine and a letter of introduction from the President. He had received it from the hands George Washington himself, who had been among the thousands of Philadelphians who watched Blanchard take off.
    The note from Washington, some claim, was the first air-mail letter in U.S. history.
    I may also have been the first security pass issued to an air traveller.

  2. What a great story! I don’t think it matters whether it is officially U.S. Air Force or Aviation, that event certainly lead to military strength. I really liked reading that President Lincoln was the 1st president to fly.

  3. This was vvvery interesting, but excuse an old airman when I say ‘ You mean 150th anniversary of the US aviation.” The US Air Force didn’t exist until after WWII. Yet
    there was in fact another 1st communication from ground to air even if was only 500
    feet up. If Lincoln went up, that’s a 1st. Using it for the military, that was a 1st.


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