Samuel A King’s Balloon “Colossus” – 1872

Samuel A. King’s Balloon “Colossus” – 1872

     In January of 1872, famous aeronaut and balloonist Samuel A. King, (1828 – 1914), of Boston, began constructing what would be, when completed, “the largest balloon ever made in America”.  The name of the balloon was to be “Colossus”.

     The balloon, it was reported, would have a circumference of 191 feet, with a capacity to hold 100,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas.  It would require 1,200 yards of Lyman cloth to make, which would be custom manufactured for this specific purpose.  To give the balloon added strength, twenty-four bands of four-thickness cloth would encircle the sphere.  The entire balloon would be coated with an oil based varnish to make it air tight in order to prevent the massive amount of gas from wicking out through the fabric.

     The pilot and passengers would be carried in two custom made cars suspended beneath the balloon, with one car situated above the other.  The upper car would be smaller than the lower one.  The top car would carry scientific instruments and passengers, while the lower one more passengers and ballast.  The entire balloon, empty, would reportedly weigh between 1,400 and 1,500 pounds, and when fully inflated would have a lifting capacity of 7,000 pounds, which could equate to fifteen or twenty passengers. 

     It was expected that the Colossus would be completed in time for its scheduled inaugural launch from the Boston Common as part of the city’s Fourth of July celebration.   Construction would take place at Mr. King’s residence and workshop located at 179 Chelsea Street in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  

     On June 6, 1872, as the balloon was nearing completion, it was seriously damaged by fire.  Portions of the balloon fabric had been spread out on a vacant lot between Chelsea and Watts Streets where it had received the first of four coats of the oil-varnish.  As the fabric was left to dry, a storm approached, so workmen carefully rolled it up to prevent moisture damage.  At some point after the storm had passed, the fabric was unrolled, at which time sections were found to be on fire due to spontaneous combustion caused by solvents in the oil-varnish. 

     Professor King was away in Philadelphia at the time making arrangements for the completion of one of the passenger carrying baskets, and was notified of the setback by telegraph.  

     Fortunately the balloon was salvaged, and repairs completed in time for it’s anticipated ascension from the Boston Common on July 4th.   On that day thousands came to watch the event.  This was to be Professor King’s 164th balloon ascension, and he was going to take twelve passengers with him on this historic flight.  “In my judgement,” King told a reporter, “although you can’t depend much on the weather, we will find ourselves about ten o’clock to-night somewhere up in the mountains of New Hampshire.”  His comment about the unpredictability of the weather would prove to be prophetic.  

     Most of the twelve passengers were newspaper men, but at least one was a scientist from Washington, D.C., who planned to record atmospheric conditions with scientific equipment.   While the balloon was being inflated on the Common, at least four citizens approached King with cash offers if he’d take them along on the flight, but all were refused.    

     The scheduled time for lift-off was 4 p.m.  Shortly after 2 p.m., as the balloon was about 80% inflated with Hydrogen gas, a violent storm suddenly appeared, and when the sky opened up spectators were sent running for cover in all directions.  The strong winds whipped at the balloon which swayed back and forth tugging at its moorings.  Whether it was struck by lightning or not is uncertain, but suddenly there was a loud boom as the Colossus abruptly exploded.  The fabric was in shreds and the massive giant immediately fell flat on the ground.  One newspaper described the scene afterwards as such: (The balloon) “…lay inanimate on the earth a dirty mass of cotton shreds, dragged and slimy in the rain and mud.”

     Fortunately there were no reported injuries due to the explosion.

      Sources:

     The Daily Dispatch, (Richmond, VA.) “A Colossal Balloon”, (Copied from the Boston Advertiser, May 23, 1872.     

     The Tiffin Tribune, (Tiffin, Ohio), “The Largest Balloon In The World Ruined By Spontaneous Combustion”, (Copied from the Boston Advertiser), June 20, 1872.

     The New York Herald, “Boston’s Big Gas Bags – Serious Catastrophes To Science In Boston”, July 5, 1872

 

 

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