William Riley’s Life Boat Balloons – 1896

William Riley’s Life Boat Balloons – 1896

     In 1896, Connecticut inventor William Willshire Riley, (1815-1897), demonstrated a novel idea for saving the lives of those who found themselves aboard sinking ships – life boats equipped with balloons.  The balloons gave the boats better buoyancy, could act as a sail to push the boat along, and also make the boat easier to see from a distance, thus offering a better chance at rescue.

     Mr. Riley received the patent for his idea on February 3, 1891. 

     In the late summer and early autumn of 1896, Riley demonstrated that his idea worked as he conducted tests on the Connecticut River near Middletown.  Even when the boat was completely filled with water, passengers, and crew, the balloon provided enough lift to keep it afloat. 

     The Riley life boat was reported to be 16 feet long, equipped with cylinders containing compressed gas to inflate the balloon, which was connected to the top of an adjustable hollow mast.  The gas could also be pumped from the balloon and back into the cylinders if necessary.  It was also demonstrated that the gas could be ignited and used as a beacon to attract rescue at night. 

     In the 19th century, many sailing ships were wrecked within sight of shore, and it was up to the U.S. Life Saving Service to rescue the helpless crews.  Rescue operations were often conducted in stormy weather and rough seas.  One method used by the Life Saving Service was to fire a small cannon which launched a rope to the stricken vessel.  Unfortunately this wasn’t always successful if the wind was blowing shoreward.  Mr. Riley showed that his boat could be launched from a sinking vessel and carry a rope to shore with it. 

     It was thought that Mr. Riley’s invention would be in common use within a short time. 

     Mr. Riley passed away on April 8, 1897, and is buried with is wife at Old Center Cemetery in Cromwell, Connecticut.  To see a photograph of his grave and learn more, see www.findagrave.com, Memorial #13743474.         


     Iron County Register, (Mo.) “Balloons To Save Life”, November 5, 1896 – Originally published in the New York Herald.    



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