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The Great Cleveland Balloon Caper

Apparently as part of its fundraising efforts, in 1986 United Way decided to release over 1.5 million helium-filled balloons from the Cleveland city center, breaking the existing record for the Guinness book of records. Unfortunately, an impending thunderstorm required the premature release of the balloons and even then the weight of the rain resulted in the balloons being brought down within a limited area rather than rising up and being spread far and wide as originally intended.

From a colleague, I got a link to a report by Jordan Kushins who describes what happened, with pictures.

Thousands of volunteers worked a full night and morning in a fenced-in area covered with a loose net “ceiling” in the central Public Square. Before the big tah-dah, the scene had evolved to look like some kind of writhing, oversized ball-pit monster; when inclement weather threatened the timing, the decision was made to let ‘er rip.

For a while, it was an incredible display. Photographer Thom Sheridan captured the surreal event on film, and the images are unbelievable—somehow equal parts genuinely heart-lifting expression of wonder, horror-film urban infestation, and terrifying unidentifiable civic explosion.

You can see a video of the event here.

I moved to Cleveland in late 1988 but until last week I had never heard of the great Cleveland balloon release. I have been asking other people about it and so far no one has said they knew about it.

This is the kind of stunt that thankfully will not be repeated now because of the waste of precious helium and also the pollution and danger to wildlife and birds caused by so many pieces of balloon rubber lying around. But on the plus side, it does show an imaginative and wacky side to this city that I had not suspected existed.

Comments

  1. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    I remember the release well. I’m glad that they’re no longer utilized.

    The year or two after, I think, United Way switched to a rubber ducky release down the Cuyahoga that was much easier to contain and clean up.

    I do wonder about the whole Helium question however. I get that the helium has to be gathered from the atmosphere and that the supply is finite, but the balloons don’t deplete the supply in any way do they?

    Jeff

  2. Trebuchet says

    @2: Helium isn’t recovered from the atmosphere. Its low mass means it quickly dissipates into the upper atomosphere and is lost. It was actually discovered by analysis of the spectrum of the sun (hence helium, from helios) and was unknown on earth until it was discovered in natural gas from some wells in the USA. Apparently it was created by nuclear decay deep in the earth and filtered upward until being trapped in gas deposits. It is very much a finite, and diminishing, resource.

  3. Mano Singham says

    @Jeff,

    As Trebuchet says, helium is obtained from the Earth like a mineral. Back in 2012 I wrote about the way helium reserves are being rapidly depleted and that we are head for a serious shortage and need to stop wasting it on balloons and the like immediately.

  4. says

    Yeah, I don’t remember this at all. But since I’ve never liked the local papers or news, I suppose this wouldn’t be a surprise. Although, such events are usually publicized in other ways, and I was kind of into charity events back then (which, strangely enough, I had occasion to mention just yesterday because of a post by Stephanie Zvan).

    That is some fairly weird Cleveland.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    …danger to wildlife and birds …

    Reminds me of the episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in which turkeys are dropped from helicopters to promote something or other. They forgot that turkeys don’t fly very well.

  6. lorn says

    I’m not enthusiastic about balloon releases. They are a major hazard to wildlife, particularly marine life. On the up side if they have to do the balloon thing at least they went with latex rubber which degrades in sunlight and not metalized Mylar which persists for years.

    IMHO it would be smart and extend the life of a limited resource if we switched from helium to hydrogen, yes, I know, hydrogen burns but it is so light that the flames, and most of the heat, move up and the burn is fairly slow. I’ve set off dozens of hydrogen filled balloons and the main obstacle is perception. Everyone has seen films of the Hindenburg burning and the impressive visual effect but few remember that for such a large fire very few people were killed or injured:

    “Of the 97 people on board[N 1] (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), there were 35 fatalities. There was also one death of a ground crewman. ”
    From:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindenburg_disaster

    Some analysis of the calamity suggests that the majority of those killed were burned not by burning hydrogen but the diesel fuel carried to fuel the engines or struck by the falling structure. Of those killed by burning hydrogen most were in the 12 man crew on the bow where the where above the bladders filled with hydrogen and in the path of the rapidly rising flame front.

    I do know that a Cleveland sized balloon launch filled with hydrogen would be spectacular. The balloons would have twice the lift but, because of the molecular size of hydrogen and resultant tendency to sneak through barriers, the balloons would deflate rapidly. Quite the spectacle, and something of a hazard with flaming latex rubber raining down, if on fire.

    Being fabulists I think the risk to Cleveland is well worth the visual effect.

  7. Trebuchet says

    I do know that a Cleveland sized balloon launch filled with hydrogen would be spectacular. The balloons would have twice the lift but, because of the molecular size of hydrogen and resultant tendency to sneak through barriers, the balloons would deflate rapidly. Quite the spectacle, and something of a hazard with flaming latex rubber raining down, if on fire.

    Sorry, have nit, must pick.

    Hydrogen is diatomic. That means the molecular size is much greater than mono-atomic helium. It’s also why hydrogen generates only twice the lift of helium, instead of four times.

    Releasing a bunch of hydrogen (which means “water maker”) balloons in a thunderstorm could be pretty awesome!

  8. Bruce says

    It’s interesting that the film clip from “Headline News” did not indicate which network or station was playing it. These days, we are so accustomed to an identifying mark in the corner and people mentioning the network or displaying it on the lower part of the screen. So it was surprising to see how we did it in the old days, back when I still watched TV news.

    As to the relative rates of effusion of H2 vs He, everyone has a point. If the rate of leakage were limited by size, then the larger H2 molecule would leak out more slowly. However, according to Graham’s law, effusion of a molecule through a small hole is generally limited more by molecular mass than by size. As helium has twice the mass of H2, at a given temperature (i.e., equal kinetic energy), the velocity of escape will be inversely proportional to the square root of the mass ratio. Thus, H2 will effuse 1.41 times faster than He atoms would.

    I can’t quite recall if humanity learned this from a revelation in the bible, or from some work by Boltzman etc. Once again, science develops an answer where prayer was unable to help. Thanks to Mano for another fun topic.

  9. Holms says

    Helium is recovered from underground wells, especially those associated with uranium mining, because the 2 proton 2 neutron nucleus of a helium atom is a byproduct of radioactive decay – the alpha particle.

  10. says

    I’m not sure if it’s an urban legend or not, but when I shared this on Facebook, an American friend said two people died because of the release. Apparently the two people started drowning in the water with all the balloons and rescue workers found it difficult to both locate and then get to them because of the said balloons. As I said, not sure of the veracity but thought it was interesting whether it’s true or whether it’s an urban legend that sprung up around the release.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Here is an account of what happened. It looks like the balloons seriously hampered the search for two fishermen who had gone fishing the previous day, were reported missing but later turned up dead.

  12. Timothy says

    Reminds me of the episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in which turkeys are dropped from helicopters to promote something or other. They forgot that turkeys don’t fly very well.

    LOL! That was one of the greatest episodes! :-)

  13. dmcclean says

    I have to nitpick your nitpicking, #8.

    Hydrogen doesn’t generate twice or four times the lift of helium. This is because the amount of lift generated is not proportional to the density of the gas that you use, it’s proportional to the difference between that density and the density of the air it is displacing.

    The density of air at 0 degC and 1 atm is 1.2922 kg/m^3. The density of helium under the same conditions is 0.1786 kg/m^3. That of hydrogen is 0.0899 kg/m^3. This means that hydrogen generates (1.2922 – 0.0899) / (1.2922 – 0.1786) = 1.08 times as much lift as helium, only 8% more.

  14. Trebuchet says

    @15: You mean my high school physics teacher was wrong all those years ago?

    Seriously, I never thought about it that way. Thanks for that.

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