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Albert Ladd Colby
Report on the Boston Molasses Tank Explosion

Held by Special Collections, Linderman Library
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 18015

Call No.: SC MS 098
2 cartons, 10 volumes of manuscripts

On January 15, 1919, Purity Distilling Company's 50 ft. high and 90 ft. in diameter molasses tank exploded, in Boston, Massachusetts. 21 people died and over 50 people injured. Purity Distilling Company and the parent company United States Alcohol Company paid over 1 million dollars after 125 lawsuits filed against them. The hearing of the trial was the longest in the history of Massachusetts Courts. Consulting engineer Albert Ladd Colby was hired as an "Expert for the Defendant" to give an expert report to the defense team and a testimony in the court explaining "what caused the explosion."

The collection came from Fritz Engineering Library at Lehigh University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in May 2001. Total 10 volumes collection contains typescript reports of the test results, blue prints of the molasses tank and photographs of steel pieces from the tank that are tested. First 4 volumes of the collection, lacking the volumes fifth and sixth*, contain Albert Ladd Colby's final general report to the defense team, Larkin & Perry Attorneys at Law. Additional 5 volumes are A. L. Colby's private and confidential reports to Larkin & Perry and a summary of his testimony in the court. These reports contain further test results, Colby's opinions of the Molasses Tank; report on his proposed testimony during direct examination; report on design of the Manhole Plate; report on the test of the Manhole Plate's head; and digest of his testimony.

Albert Ladd Colby was born in New York, in June 26, 1860. In 1881, he graduated from Columbia University School of Mines as chemist and metallurgist. He worked at Lehigh University, from 1883 to 1886, as an instructor in Chemistry. From 1886 to 1903, he worked for Bethlehem Steel Company, South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, first as chief chemist and then metallurgical engineer. From 1903-05, he worked for International Nickel Company. After 1905, he became an independent consulting engineer and consulted many American steel companies and some foreign companies. 1897-1905 he was secretary of the Association of American Steel Manufacturers. He had many publications, among them American Standard Specifications for Steel, 1902, has been the most important. A. L. Colby died in 1924.

BOX 1: Final General Report on the Boston Molasses Tank. July 12, 1920.

* Although they were never turned in to Special Collections, following two items mentioned in the "Introduction" of Volume 1 by A. L. Colby,
(Volume 5. Six Large Blue Prints, identified both numerically and alphabetically.)
(Volume 6. 40 Mounted Photographs.)

BOX 2: Confidential and Private Reports to Larkin & Perry, Attorneys at Law.

Volume 1.5. A.L. Colby's present opinions of the Molasses Tank, together with a progress report on his proposed testimony during direct examination with notes showing exactly what further preparation work must be done. South Bethlehem, PA. July 19, 1919.
Part I.
Colby's opinions on the molasses tank
Professional record

Part II
Proposed testimony on direct examination
General description on the tank and its foundation
History and service of the tank
Description of how the tank failed
List of all possible causes of the accident:
a. Explosion
b. Spontaneous combustion
c. Fermentation
d. State of repair
e. Structural weakness:
i. defective material
ii. poor workmanship
iii. insufficient foundation and inability to absorb vibration
f. Faulty design
g. External causes.

Concluding remarks.

Volume 2.5. Report of design of A.L. Colby's proposed full-sized manhole plate, and the pulling heads for its test in the Lehigh University Testing Machine, together with a description of the proposed test. South Bethlehem, PA., October 5, 1919.

Folder 2.5.a. Letter to Mr. H.F.R. Dolan signed by George Fillmore Swain, George F. Russell and Edward F. Kieller.

Volume 3.5. Private report on the test manhole plate and the test thereon. Bethlehem PA., July 3, 1920.

Volume 4.5. 15 photographs of tested pieces from the Molasses Tank and A. L. Colby's "Exploded Shell".

Volume 5.5.a Subject digest of A. L. Colby's testimony with a summary of its principal features. Bethlehem, PA., February 8, 1922.
Volume 5.5.b Blue prints, charts, and photomicrographs marked either as "Exhibits" or for "Identification" during A. L. Colby's testimony.
Appendix 1.3 Six "Exhibit" pictures of coupons from Molasses Tank rings. (Three sheets, two pictures printed on each sheet.)
Appendix 2.3. Biographical information of Albert Ladd Colby.
Appendix 3.3. Articles and news containing general scientific information on Molasses Tank explosion.

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