Posted by: Merlin PJ14 OCT 2009
The phrase “going down like a lead balloon” seems to have become more popular in recent years, and seems to be a particular favourite with those NHS administrative staff who enjoy using jargon. The phrase usually refers to an idea or proposal that has not been well received by the intended audience. It appears to have originated in the US.
Probably the earliest reference is in an article in the Atchison Daily Globe in May 1947. This piece discussed why some writers’ contributions were well received by one group of readers but not by others, and stated: “But occasionally a column or comic strip will ‘go over’ like a V-1 rocket in one community and, for inexplicable reasons, a lead balloon in another.”
Everyone knows that a lead balloon could not possibly fly — or could it? Followers of the Discovery Channel programme Mythbusters may have seen the mythbusters’ attempts to fly a helium-filled balloon made of lead foil. The “balloon” was in the form of a cube with edges about 2m long, and made of thin lead foil.
After a number of attempts, the balloon did manage to take off and hover. The foil was unfortunately fragile and the balloon eventually came to grief. However, it had demonstrated that a lead balloon can actually fly. You can watch a video of the experiment
The mythbusters’ balloon was flown inside an aircraft hangar, away from the wind. However, in 1977, an attempt at flying a lead balloon in the open air was made at the research laboratories of Arthur D. Little Inc, near Boston, Massachusetts.
In a competition between the various research teams at the company, three designs were built. The most successful consisted of a balsa-wood frame some 8ft in diameter and 14ft long, covered with thin lead foil. Because of the shape chosen for its rigid framework, this balloon was named the Lead Zeppelin.
All three balloons were inflated with helium and made tethered flights in the open air. One, of a cube shape, collapsed quickly. Another, which was spherical in shape — it was essentially a weather balloon with a lead foil coating — broke from its mooring and landed about a mile away.
The Lead Zeppelin also broke its tether but remained airborne and began to head towards Logan International Airport, just outside Boston. Someone realised that it would show up on Logan’s radar and telephoned the control tower with a warning.
After initial disbelief, the Logan air traffic control tracked the balloon for a number of miles. It was last seen by the pilot of a commercial airliner out over the Atlantic Ocean, heading for Europe.