110 years ago in Grocott’s Mail

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GROCOTT’S MAIL, FRIDAY 06 OCTOBER

110 YEARS AGO IN GROCOTT’S MAIL:
“A Texas correspondent,” said Grocott’s of 4 October 1907, “informs us that little Minnie Moody, aged two years, recently figured in the most remarkable incident that has occurred in that remarkable country. The baby was standing upon the verandah of the hotel when an Italian approached, carrying eighty-five toy balloons. The little girl manifested a desire for the toys, and the vendor, thinking to please her, tied the entire bunch about her waist. Immediately the baby was gently lifted from the high portico and swept beyond reach.

A fresh breeze bore the little one out to sea. Panic prevailed upon the beach. When the balloons and the baby had floated about fifty yards from the shore a launch appeared. They perceived the cause of the commotion and, hastily catching up a rifle from the bottom of the launch, a Mr Munefee fired into the floating mass. It swayed like a wounded gull as the bullet tore through, but swept on towards the sea. Another shot, and the balloons were seen to settle slightly and begin sinking down an aerial inclined plane towards the water. Boats and launches gave chase to save the baby from drowning, but she settled down upon an island as gently as a bird ten yards from the water’s edge.”

Stunt? Exaggeration? Urban legend? Could it be…true? It’s hard to tell. Several alarm bells should be ringing in the 21st-century news-reader’s brain by now: the place, date and time of this occurrence are not reported. Indeed, a search of newspapers archived online by the US Library of Congress shows that the story was reported only a few times: in the New Zealand paper The Cromwell Argus in July 1908, in the Grocott’s Penny Mail of October 1907, and the Kingston Freeman of New York, USA, in November 1952. None of the Texas Gulf’s papers carried the report. That isn’t to say for certain that Minnie Moody never met the Italian balloon vendor, just that she probably wasn’t carried off into the air by his balloons.

It would certainly be impossible for a child to be carried off by balloons in 2017. The average two-year-old American girl today weighs 11.5kg. According to calculations by the staff at MythBusters and Wired.com, it would take between 1500 and 2500 helium balloons to lift a child that heavy off the ground. Let’s allow for the fact that the average size of humans has increased over the last century, and assume that young Minnie Moody tipped the scales at all of 8kg. Would it have been possible then?

The answer is still no. Latex balloons as we know them today were only invented in the 1920s, by Neil Tillotson, who also invented rubber gloves. Before that, vulcanised latex was used. Balloon manufacturers used injection moulds, and these older balloons were neither as elastic nor as temperature-stable as they are now. They were also not mass-produced: in 1907, when Minnie Moody was allegedly blown out to sea, the mass-manufacture of latex balloons had only just begun in the USA. The Italian balloon vendor in the above article would most likely have made his balloons himself (and was therefore probably horrified when his entire stock ended up in the drink), and they would not have been big enough to lift a child, even if all 85 of them were attached together.

Even assuming anyone would sell you that many helium balloons without asking awkward questions, the balloons would then have to be arranged in a very specific formation, and the weather conditions would need to be perfect. You’d need the balloons to be filled with helium, too.

Which, in 1907, they wouldn’t have been. Helium was discovered in space in 1868 and on earth in 1895. Drilling for the gas began only in 1903, in Kansas. The United States was then and remains the world’s primary supplier of helium, followed by Qatar. Early on, the sale of helium was restricted because of its potential for military use (which was why the Hindenberg was filled with hydrogen rather than helium when it crashed and burned in 1937). It’s not very likely that a balloon vendor on the beachfront of a Texan town in 1907 would have had access to helium.

So Minnie Moody, no matter how small, was probably not lifted off by the 85 balloons that the vendor tied around her waist. Even if it was really windy. Even if they were large balloons. This story is most likely an exaggeration, if it happened at all.

Obviously, please do not try this at home. All the conclusions quoted in this article were drawn using mathematical models, by experts; doing a physical experiment outside of a laboratory would be very dangerous. Queries, suggestions, tips and corrections to nervousflamingo@gmail.com.

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