Silas Brooks




Born in Plymouth, Connecticut in 1824, Silas Brooks as a youth had a flair for inventions. Working as a young man in a clock shop put him in the right place at the right time when one of P.T. Barnum's associates came looking for someone to fashion some "Druid band" instruments. Brooks fashioned musical instruments out of cowhorns. The instruments, worn on the chest, looked a bit like a cross between bagpipes and an accordion. Brooks would become part of a "Druid" act that would go on the road for years and lead him to balloon flying. Taking over the "Druid" act after Barnum tired of it, Brooks started a circus that travelled Ohio and much of the central mid-1800s U.S. 

The circus engaged John Wise, then the most famous American balloonist, to make balloon ascensions. The balloons flown by Wise, and later by Brooks, were made of silk coated with boiled linseed oil and varnish to make them hold hydrogen. The hydrogen was generated by mixing sulfuric acid and iron or zinc filings in a water bath. The balloons were essentially similar to gas balloons in use to the present day, with a valve at the top of wood and leather held shut by a coil spring and activated with a rope that hung down into the basket for descents and deflations. Unfortunately, the hydrogen process was expensive, driving Brooks' first circus into bankruptcy in 1852. 


After finding what was left of the touring "Druid band" in Toledo and signing on as their agent and making good money, Brooks started another circus in 1853. The circus hired Mr. Paulin, a balloonist from Philadelphia, to work for them. In the fall of 1853 in Memphis, Paulin was sick and could not make a scheduled performance, and Brooks decided to try making the balloon ascension. It was a successful flight, and for the rest of the touring season, Brooks made all of the rest of the flights. 

During the winter Brooks went to Philadelphia to build balloons with Paulin. In the early summer of 1854, they scheduled the first balloon tour of New England, with scheduled ascensions in Burlington and Hartford, Connecticut and Worcester, Massachusetts. They talked Colonel Colt, the pistol manufacturer, into underwriting a two balloon ascension from Hartford on the 4th of July. The double ascension was very successful, with glowing reports appearing in the Hartford newspapers. 

Brooks headed west the next season, and in 1855 made the first balloon ascension from St. Louis, the first of a total of 15 ascensions from Hyde Park in that city. He also made the first ascensions from Michigan and from Chicago. In Chicago, he proved that he was more than a showman, studying weather using techniques still used by balloonists today. To avoid being blown out into Lake Michigan, Brooks studied the air currents by putting up pilot balloons (today known simply as "pibals"). He observed air currents at different altitudes and different times of the day, discovering late summer afternoon lake effects winds (known on the east coast as "sea breezes"). Brooks' studies allowed him to successfully fly out over Lake Michigan, change altitudes, and fly back in. John Wise and other less observant balloonists would later lose their lives after being blown out over Lake Michigan. 

Brooks ran a museum in St. Louis while continuing to make balloon ascensions. On one flight, he flew all night (not unusual today for gas balloons) and landed 300 miles away in Wisconsin. A depression in 1858 bankrupted the museum and left him broke, with nothing left but "his shotgun, his dog, and his balloon". In 1859, the irrepressible Brooks was back in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England building and flying balloons. With money from successful flights and additional financial backing, he built two gas balloons and one hot air balloon. 

In 1859, Brooks took part in building a Transatlantic balloon. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately for the balloon pilot who may have been lost at sea), the giant "Atlantic" balloon was damaged and much of it's gear lost on a test flight from St. Louis. The balloon, flown by John Wise, had proven to be surprisingly capable, going 900 miles all the way from St. Louis to upstate New York. But the backers refused to pay for repairs and new equipment, and the attempt had to be called off. 

Wise and Brooks and others offered their services to the U.S. Government during the Civil War. But another aeronaut, Thaddeus Lowe, was more politically connected and effectively shut out his fellow aeronauts from war contracts. (Some things never change!) 

Following the Civil War, Brooks returned to Connecticut and continued making balloon flights. Like many of the balloonists of his day, he would call himself "Professor Brooks". He would bill himself as the "Great American Aeronaut and Aeronautic Engineer", despite not even having completed the equivalent of high school. He was ever inventive. On one of his flights in the late 1860s, in response to a $50 bet, Brooks built a parachute and successfully dropped a dog from his balloon. The dog survived unhurt. 

One newspaper report from the late gives a detailed account in Brooks' own words of a flight over Connecticut when his balloon was overtaken by a thunderstorm. In words modern day balloonists can easily understand and dread, Brooks described the flight. "It seemed as if the balloon were drawn into the cloud to the very center. The edges of the cloud being like black curtains around the balloon. It was dark. The balloon would whirl and sometimes almost turn bottom upwards. I adjusted my valve and tried to go upwards, but there was so much water we could not rise. We were in the cloud and borne along with it, tossed by the currents in the cloud - up, down, cross-wise, everyway. Lightning went from one cloud to another with a snapping and a crackling." Brooks finally succeeded in descending into slightly more stable air and made an exciting but successful "rip landing". Again, in Brooks words: "I tore the balloon open to let gas out but the wind caught the balloon and made a big sail. We tore through brush and rocks at a fearful rate. Finally we came up against a stone wall fence. The balloon collapsed and the basket caught on a fence, a mangled, ragged, confused mess." Brooks and his passenger, fortunately, emerged unhurt. 


Brooks' final flight would come in 1894 from Bushnell Park in Connecticut. This meant that Brooks succeeded in flying until he was nearly 70 years old, and that his flying career spanned over 40 years. Unfortunately, old age was not kind to Brooks. He died in a poorhouse in Burlington, Connecticut in 1906 at the age of 82. His obituary in the Hartford Courant would sadly state "The funeral was a pathetic scene, made pathetic by the thought that this man whose going out was of so little consequence except to a very few had once been really great in the eyes of many. It takes no prophet to predict that briars will soon overgrow Brooks' grave and that even the memory of his fame will be a forgotten story of the past." 

Fortunately, the efforts of Dr. Carlton and the modern-day Connecticut balloonists of the Connecticut Lighter-Than-Air Society (CLAS) have proven the newspaper's final prediction false. The story of Silas M. Brooks lives on. Brooks' grave is no longer overgrown with briars. In an appropriate act of tribute by today's balloonists to a man who preceded them in the skies, the Connecticut Lighter Than Air Society in December 1997 dedicated a brass plaque in the Burlington cemetery at the grave of Silas Brooks. The plaque reads "Silas M. Brooks, Connecticut's First Balloonist".



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