Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ship Model-G.W.P. Custis

This is a model of G.W.P. Custis, a balloon barge used on the Potomac and James Rivers in 1861 and 1862. It is currently on display in the museum's Civil War gallery. Prolific ship model builder Floyd Houston fabricated the model and the Naval Historical Foundation gifted it to the museum in the 1980s. The vessel is named for George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's step-grandson and Robert E. Lee's father-in-law. Many authors give the barge the commissioning title "USS," but it does not appear that the U.S. Navy actually granted the barge such an honor.

By 1861, the concept of ballooning was not new. The first balloons often used hot air as their means of getting off the ground. "Professor" Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, self-taught chemist, engineer, and balloon aeronaut, invented a machine that would produce lighter-than-air hydrogen gas and pump it into the balloon. His invention poured sulfuric acid over pieces of iron. The resulting chemical reaction produced liberated hydrogen atoms and ferrous sulfate. His research into the properties of hydrogen and subsequent inventions from his research made him a multi-millionaire after the war (which he lost building a scenic railroad).

Lowe (who frequently signed his letters "T.S.C. Lowe, Aeronaut" or "Chief Aeronaut") worked mostly with the Army to provide balloons for reconnaissance work. John Dahlgren also worked closely with Lowe at the Washington Navy Yard. Lowe referred to the barge in his writings as a "lighter (formerly the G.W.P. Custis)" and first made an ascent in a balloon from the barge in July 1861. He wrote, "I have the pleasure of reporting the complete success of the first balloon expedition by water ever attempted." While the event was historic, Lowe was not correct, as his chief rival, John La Mountain, had pulled off the feat three months before.

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