As a child, Lowe had little opportunity for education. He borrowed the books and educated himself. He developed a special interest for chemistry.
As early as 1856 Lowe became interested in ballooning as a means of investigating upper-air currents, and in 1858 he made his initial voyage, from Ottawa, Canada, in connection with the celebration of the laying of the first Atlantic cable. The following year he built an airship, named the City of New York. As the result of an ascension made in Philadelphia, June 1860, Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution became interested in Lowe's experiments and furnished him with certain instruments. He himself invented a device for getting latitude and longitude quickly without a horizon, which he miscalled an altimeter.
On April 20, 1861, he left Cincinnati, Ohio, in a balloon and after traveling some nine hundred miles in nine hours, landed near Pea Ridge, close to the boundary between North and South Carolina. He was regarded as a Yankee spy, arrested, and was in some danger of mob violence; but a gentleman who had witnessed an ascent made by Lowe at Charleston, South Carolina, the previous year, identified him and vouched for him as a scientific investigator not connected with military matters. Lowe maintained that he was thus the first prisoner taken in the Civil War. He tells of his experiences in a chapter in Navigating the Air. This voyage was made purely in the interest of science.
Lowe believed that aloft there were strong winds blowing from west to east and that advantage might be taken of their presence to carry a balloon from America to Europe. To satisfy Professor Henry, a test was made with a smaller balloon than the one intended for transoceanic purposes. Coal gas was used to inflate, and the trip as a whole was successful. The balloon moved west in the lower levels at the start, to the great delight of the doubters; but at a height of 7, 000 feet, a reverse current carried it eastward. The average height was 16, 000 feet and the greatest 23, 000 feet. Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Lowe went to Washington with a view to interesting the authorities in the use of balloons for observation purposes. On June 6, 1861, Secretary of War Cameron asked Professor Henry to report on the matter. On June 18, Lowe made an ascent, during which he sent to President Lincoln the first telegraph message from a balloon in air. On June 21, Henry reported to Secretary Cameron that balloons would probably be of military value. Lowe was made chief of the aeronautic section and rendered valuable service to the Army of the Potomac from the battle of Bull Run to that of Gettysburg.
After the war, Lowe became interested in the manufacture of artificial ice machines and as early as 1866 had constructed a plant for this purpose. He is credited with making the first artificial ice for commercial purposes in the United States. The New York Sun described his equipment of a refrigerated steamer for the transportation of perishable meats, vegetables, and fruits from Galveston to New York. A shipment of fresh beef from Texas to New Orleans arrived there December 10, 1868, on the steamer Agnes, in good condition, looking as if freshly slaughtered although killed five days earlier. A company was formed to transport perishable goods in refrigerating devices; but the company failed, leaving Lowe in debt.
Later he made several improvements in the manufacture of gas and coke. By building regenerative metallurgical furnaces (1869 - 1872) he succeeded in producing gas and fuel. In 1873-1875 he invented and built water-gas apparatus; and in 1897 he constructed the New Lowe Coke Oven system for producing gas and coke, the latter known as anthracite coke, and used in smelting furnaces. The grade of coke produced equaled the best European product. From 1891 to 1894 he lived in California.
Lowe was an honorary member of the Loyal Legion.
On February 14, 1855, Lowe married Leontine A. Gachon of Paris, by whom he had three sons.