Although the collection of the National Air and Space Museum contains some of the best air- and spacecraft, it also has one of the best collections of artifacts from the often forgotten days of ballooning. Before humans were able to fly into the heavens on wings or rockets, they first rose off the ground in balloons, often tethered to prevent complete flight. One object from this collection, however, stands out for its peculiar place in American military history. It is a piece of fabric from the most fashionable balloon of the American Civil War.
In 1862, a Civil War “arms race” was in full swing on the Virginia peninsula east of Richmond. The Union Army had fielded observation balloons to assist with their movement against Confederate forces. Backed by Thaddeus Lowe, the U.S. Balloon Corps made numerous observation flights to watch the Confederate army as it changed position to protect Richmond. In a postwar writing in The Century magazine named “Our March against Pope,” Confederate general James Longstreet wrote:
“The Federals had been using balloons in examining our positions, and we watched with curious eyes their beautiful observations as they floated high up in the air, and well out of the range of our guns. We longed for the balloons that poverty denied us.”
Although the Union Army was first to the field with observation balloons, the Confederate forces were trying to field their very own. The first attempt involved a hot air balloon flown by Captain John Randolph Bryan outside of Yorktown, which ended in near disaster (a story for another post). The first silk gas balloon of Confederate fame, named Gazelle, was constructed in Savannah, Georgia, by Langdon Cheves, who used his own funds for the project. Although the balloons of the U.S. Balloon Corps were made of white silk and coated in a varnish made by Thaddeus Lowe, Cheves did not have access to the same type of supplies. In a writing in the South Carolina Historical Magazine, author J. H. Easterby explained, “…Mr. Cheves designed and superintended the construction at the Chatham Armory in Savannah, chiefly at his own expense (I believe), made of ladies dress silk bought in Savannah and Charleston, in lengths of about 40 feet and of various colours.” This material was sewn together and varnished to create the Confederate war balloon. This fashionable, multi-colored patchwork creation of various materials brought about the nickname by which it was often called, “the Silk Dress Balloon.” This construction even brought about rumors that followed the balloon well after the war. James Longstreet wrote, “A genius arose for the occasion and suggested that we send out and gather together all the silk dresses in the Confederacy and make a balloon.” This fictitious story was often repeated in various post-war writings.
Once finished and sent to Richmond, the “Silk Dress Balloon” was handed over to General Edward Porter Alexander in order to begin the observations. In his memoirs, General Alexander explained, “We could not get pure hydrogen gas to fill the balloon, & had to use ordinary illuminating gas, from the Richmond Gas Works…” This gas, created from coal, was primarily used to light gas lamps in homes and on streets throughout the city of Richmond. After the balloon was filled in Richmond, it was attached to a train car and moved to the front. Alexander made his first observations during the battle of Gaines Mill, from which he was able to signal Union troop movements to his fellow officers.
The system worked well at first, and the Confederate forces decided to move their operation to the water. The silk balloon was loaded onto an armed tug called the Teaser, and the ship would bring it from the Gas Works to the front lines along the James River. This system, however, eventually led to the demise of the Gazelle. The Teaser, loaded with the Gazelle, ran into Union naval forces on the James River, and was fired upon and captured by the U.S.S. Maratanza. The balloon was given to Thaddeus Lowe, who cut it up into scraps to give as souvenirs. Our patch of the balloon was donated to the museum by the Lowe family.Although small in size, the “Silk Dress Balloon” fragment in the Museum’s collection tells a fascinating story. It may look a little silly, but the fabric did hold gas and worked well during the war. It may not seem like much, but this small piece fabric preserves the story of the balloons of the Confederate army and their unorthodox construction materials. Imagine what it must have looked like to see dress silk rise in the distance above a battlefield.
Tom Paone is a museum tech at the National Air and Space Museum.
While processing a National Air and Space Museum Archives photo collection, I came across this image—two men holding the wax head of astronaut Alan Shepard!
Although wax replicas are often used for creepy Halloween special effects, this wax model of Shepard’s head was made by the National Historical Wax Museum for realistic display purposes. For years, the head and a reproduction pressure suit were on display inside the “Freedom 7” capsule. The Museum has since deaccessioned the head and the Freedom 7 capsule is currently on loan to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library.
Have a happy and safe Halloween!!
Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Archives Department of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
One question I’m often asked as a curator is, “do you ever find anything interesting for the museum on eBay?” The answer is yes. This is the story of a particularly interesting find.
When developing the aviation component of the museum’s “Time and Navigation” exhibit, I wanted to showcase the role of navigational radar in World War II. The use of radar as a navigational aid affected people as no other navigational technology had done previously. The way the radar operator saw the world through his scope had enormous consequences.
Radar has long been understood as one of the most influential technologies of World War II. Most people are familiar with the use of radar for detecting other airplanes, particularly in the Battle of Britain. Less well known is the critical role played by radar in navigation. Radar was an enormously useful new tool because it could see through clouds and guide airplanes when they were out of range of other radio navigation systems or were subject to jamming. However, radar was complicated, expensive, heavy, and operators required extensive training. This limited the use of radar, particularly in Europe, to specially equipped “pathfinder” aircraft that guided formations of conventional bombers.
Unfortunately, these systems had one great weakness. The wavelength of radar signals used by the allies for the latter part of the war did not provide a high degree of definition for terrain detection. For the most part, only two things stood out for the operator (or “Mickey” as he was usually nicknamed for reasons that are not entirely clear now) – shorelines and the vertical surfaces of buildings in cityscapes. This required special maps so that radar operators could focus on interpreting only what they could see on their scope. It also meant that in poor weather, commanders usually directed bombing raids toward cities, because those were the only targets that could be pinpointed with any degree of accuracy. One reason that cities in Germany were bombed so heavily in the last year of the war was the combination of especially poor weather and the rapidly growing reliance on radar to guide operations. The use of pathfinder aircraft exacerbated the situation because the non-radar equipped formation dropped their bombs in conjunction with the pathfinder rather than selecting a visual aim point. This further increased the inaccuracy of the bombing and was impractical for smaller targets.
I wanted to demonstrate this link between the limitations of the radar scope, the sparse depictions of radar charts, and changes in target selection by displaying a period radar navigation chart alongside the period radar scope we were exhibiting. Surprisingly, the National Air and Space Museum’s normally abundant archives lacked examples of this significant type of charting. While the National Archives does hold examples, getting them duplicated was daunting from a cost standpoint, so I elected to see what I could find on eBay.
As luck would have it, within a week I had located a poorly described listing that appeared to be a period WWII radar chart. The description merely described it as an “aeronautical chart” and featured one photo of the map completely folded with a small part of southeast England and the English Channel visible – not incredibly promising given that I was looking for something that would depict operations over occupied Europe. Unfortunately, it was all I could find, so I put a bid in. I was the sole bidder and acquired it for all of $25. When I finally received it in the mail, I realized how incredibly lucky I had been. The chart was far larger than the description or photo indicated, covering most of northwest Europe from western England to eastern Germany. It consisted of several radar charts taped together for a specific mission, presumably by the bomb group’s intelligence section that had also hand-inked the German flak belts on the map. Most notably, it had a mission route hand drawn on it in pencil stretching across the approximately seven-foot width of the chart, making it very likely that it was used on an operational mission.
From the pencil route and position of the marked flak belts, I figured it would be a fairly easy matter to determine the specific mission. The target designated on the map was an industrial town in eastern Germany – Ruhland. The oil refineries there were a frequent target for the B-17s of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces. After researching the movement of the frontlines in the two months after the Battle of the Bulge relative to the inked-on flak defenses and knowing the dates of missions to Ruhland, I could pinpoint the map to a particular bombing raid – one that had enormous significance beyond its place in history as a military operation.
The Eighth Air Forces’ Mission 832 on February 15, 1945 was to strike the refineries at Ruhland, Böhlen and Madgeburg with 1,131 heavy bombers. The oil plants did not stand out enough on the H2X radar used by the B-17 pathfinders, so when the bombers on the Ruhland and Bohlen target runs found their aim points obscured by clouds, they diverted to their secondary radar target of opportunity – the railroad marshaling yards of Dresden.
Bomber crews knew that with the limited accuracy of bombing under radar (only 50% of bombs would land within a mile of the target), aiming at an urban rail yard on radar meant simply targeting the city itself. Generally, up to this time, American commanders had avoided listing cities as targets in their own right, and instead focused on picking specific military or industrial targets as aim points. In reality, the inaccuracy of radar (as well as visual bombing) was such that striking targets in or adjacent to cities was operationally no different than the heavy bombing raids of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), whose night missions focused principally urban areas. RAF leadership was more willing to target cities as part of a strategic doctrine of undermining enemy morale, but the operational reality was that cities were the only target that could be reliably struck at night when bombers were less vulnerable to fighters and flak.
Dresden was no different than dozens of other German cities in terms of being targeted in this manner. However, Dresden stands out in history as being a particularly devastating example of area bombing, not because it was fire-bombed with incendiaries, or because of the tonnage of bombs dropped, or even because of Kurt Vonnegut’s visceral accounts of the effects in his Slaughterhouse Five. Rather, because of the reliance on radar bombing and poor weather on February 15th, an unusually high number of bombers diverted to Dresden creating a nearly continuous chain of British and American bombing raids on the city over thirty-six hours in duration. In most other German cities that had been bombed, raids lasted several hours at most. Even when firestorms occurred there was often some respite to fight fires, flee, or dig out from the rubble. Dresden was already suffering under an unusual confluence of intensive RAF raids on the nights of February 13th and 14th and American Army Air Forces raids during the day on the 14th.
When the redirected raids from Ruhland and other targets appeared over Dresden on the 15th, the recovery was thrown into chaos. It was the unremitting nature of the raids that made Dresden a unique horror for the residents of the city. Though casualties ran into the tens of thousands, the Dresden bombing has not been debated principally because of its high casualty count or damage to historic districts. Rather, the sustained intensity caused post-war controversy about the morality of urban area bombing. By the end of the war, new radar systems, such as the AN/APQ-7 Eagle, had sufficient resolution to ensure that the haphazard assigning of cities as radar secondary targets could be avoided in the future.
Of all of the charts I could possibly have located for the exhibit, I couldn’t have conceived of a better one for illustrating just how much navigational methods can affect human life. The lesson for historians is that there is value in locating “material culture” (what anthropologists call the physical things people use in the course of their activities) in places like eBay and looking beyond conventional archives. For those simply looking to collect interesting things, the lesson is that if you “know your subject,” you can find some truly remarkable artifacts that would otherwise be overlooked.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
This is my space shuttle memory. On June 17, 1983, the day before the launch of STS-7, which carried the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and her four astronaut colleagues into orbit, my family visited the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. My mother wanted my brother, Ray, and me to visit the space center and she hoped that we might still get tickets to see the launch. Of course, admissions to the on-site viewing area had long since been distributed. But a NASA staff member told my mother another way to see it: in essence, “Just look up.” Because we lived in the mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania, it never occurred to us that you’d be able to see the launch for miles around in pancake-flat Florida. Sure enough, as we drove down the highway in our rental car the next day, the launch time arrived and we could see it easily. Even more than the plume rising into the sky or the “Ride, Sally Ride” signs, I remember being impressed that ALL of the cars on the highway stopped and pulled off onto the berm. People stood next to their vehicles or, like us, sat on the car’s hood, looking up to witness the launch of that historic space mission.
When I was helping to plan an exhibit that would include the history of the space shuttle for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, I wanted to find a way to show how space shuttle launches and landings became cultural events, experienced by millions of people from across the country and around the world. So, working with my colleagues, we’ve developed a Flickr group where people can upload personal photos taken at space shuttle launches or landings events. From these crowd-sourced images, the team will select photos to be included on the exhibit website and in a small slideshow on a monitor in the gallery. The owners of images selected to be exhibited in the gallery may even be invited to submit their photos for inclusion in the Museum’s Archives (a separate process following all of our usual museum protocols).
So, if you ever saw a space shuttle orbiter launch or land, the Moving Beyond Earth exhibit team wants to see your photos! Upload your photos to Flickr and share them in our group called “My Space Shuttle Memories: Launches and Landings.” Flickr membership is free and uploading the images can be as easy as dragging and dropping them. The selected images will be included on the Museum’s website as part of the online presence for the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition. The website display will include all images that are selected throughout the course of the project.
Please upload photos that include people (not just your personal photo of the plume rising), because the exhibit display focuses on the people who witnessed firsthand the shuttle launches and landings. Also remember to include a caption with both the approximate date the photo was taken and your own personal reflection on the occasion. (Please also read and make sure that you agree with the terms of service before you upload any images!)
By illustrating a very small sampling of the wide range of people who witnessed the space shuttle in person between 1981 and 2011, we hope that the slide show in the Museum’s exhibit as well as on-line will show how these scientific and technological vehicles also created distinct cultural experiences, the shared witnessing of a launch or landing. Make sure we see your space shuttle memory!
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.
Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from 1976 to 1982, Bruce Murray was a geologist whose vision was never earthbound. He earned his PhD from MIT and served two years in the U.S. Air Force before joining the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1960. Caltech manages JPL for NASA, and soon Murray was working on JPL’s Mariner missions to Mars. During his tenure as director of JPL, the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars and the Voyagers began exploring the outer solar system. He also oversaw Earth orbital missions, including Seasat, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer, and Shuttle Imaging Radar-A.
After stepping down as JPL director, Murray remained at Caltech as a professor of planetary science and geology. He authored or co-authored over 130 scientific papers and seven books.
In 1979 Murray co-founded, along with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, the Planetary Society, an organization to promote public support for space exploration. He believed deeply in the importance of learning about the solar system and urged his colleagues at JPL to do “remarkable things . . . significant to both our times and to the world of our children.” He was a tireless advocate for planetary science, and through his leadership he helped our nation’s planetary exploration program grow and flourish.