Barnum’s trans-Atlantic balloon

St. John’s Daily News thought P.T. Barnum was full of hot air, but it was not enough to blow a balloon across the Atlantic.

Phineas T. Barnum will build “the most magnificent balloon that ever soared aloft,” and sail it across the Atlantic from the United States to England, reports the St. John’s Daily News, October 9, 1873.

Barnum, wealthy showman, circus founder, author, publisher, publicist extraordinaire, and hoaxster had examined the problem of a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. He hired a professor, Washington D. Donaldson, to make twice-weekly ascents in a circus hot air balloon. On his first ascent, Donaldson released thousand of Barnum business cards, which fluttered down on New York City “like a flock of insects.” The circus balloon was also used for the world’s first wedding “above the clouds.”

Professor Donaldson was equipped with the very best instruments to measures high altitude air temperature, wind speed and direction. After determining that prevailing winds blow from west to east, Barnum announced a balloon crossing to Europe could be “as easily and safely accomplished as a journey there in one of our best ocean steamers.”

Barnum’s monster trans-Atlantic balloon is to be “constructed in England of the strongest Chinese silk,” the St. John’s Daily News reported. After exhibiting his balloon in England to hundreds of thousands of people, “in the exercise of his-well known benevolence,” Barnum was to ship it to the United States for further exhibitions. Then, on its daring voyage to the Old World, “It will rise majestically to the level of the grand Eastward aerial current,” for a speedy crossing.

The Daily News wished Barnum success. “It is mainly a question of wind, and Barnum has been a great blower in his time. It seems, according to the fitness of things, that a favourable blast should aid his grand project. Let us hope success will crown his efforts. He is as worthy of it as any of his brother charlatans.”

As it turned out, the monster balloon was never built and the planned trans-Atlantic crossing was cancelled. It was probably just as well. Even a balloon flight over Lake Michigan proved fatal the following year. Barnum’s circus balloon, with professor Donaldson and a newspaper reporter took off from show grounds in Chicago and drifted over Lake Michigan, where it was met by an unexpected gale. Professor Donaldson’s body washed ashore a month later, but the reporter’s body was never found.


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