The story of an errant cylinder has been used for decades as a cautionary lab tale. But is it true?

CrucibleIn 1969, an entertaining tale of an errant cylinder was published in a pharmaceutical company’s internal newsletter.

According to the story, a bunch of painters took six 220-cubic foot gas cylinders off their off their wall supports and put them to the side to allow the painting of an area. A painter, who was trying to scoot one of the cylinder across the floor, realized that it was leaking gas. But before he could do anything, he found himself being jet-propelled across the construction site. 

The amusing story has spread through safety circles and the academic literature, appearing in the Journal of Chemical Education, which is published by the American Chemical Society, in  June 1976. But does the account contain any element of truth?

It turns out that’s quite unclear. 

One man — David Gervais, who is part of the Science Teachers Association of Ontario in Canada — has been on a mission to get records cleared up since September 2014. Gervais found the tale in the archival records of his own safety organization’s magazine two years ago, and was immediately suspicious since it read like a “comedy of errors.”

Here’s the next part of the tale (under a different title) from the Oklahoma State University’s website:

The one that got away

The man suddenly found himself with a jet-propelled 215 pound piece of steel. He wrestled it to the floor, but was unable to hold it. The cylinder scooted across the floor hitting another cylinder, knocking it over and bending its valve. The cylinder then turned 90 degrees to the right and traveled 20 feet where it struck a painters scaffold causing a painter to fall 7 feet to the floor. After spinning around several times, it traveled back to its approximate starting point, where it struck a wall.

At this point, the cylinder turned 90 degrees to the left and took off lengthwise of the room chasing an electrician in front of it. It crashed into the end wall 40 feet away breaking four concrete blocks. It turned again 90 degrees to the right, scooted through a door opening, still chasing the electrician. The electrician ducked into the next door opening, but the cylinder continued its travel in a straight line for another 60 feet, where it fell into a truck well striking the truck well door. The balance of the cylinder pressure was released as the cylinder spun harmlessly around in the truck well area.

The painter who fell from the scaffold received multiple fractures of his leg.

It goes on to read:

This incident illustrates what can happen when a valve is separated from a compressed gas cylinder. The one contained pressure of about 900 pounds per square inch, but many cylinders are pressurized to 2200 pounds per square inch. If you have any doubts about the need for anchoring compressed gas cylinders, you might think about the 2200 pounds per square inch and ask yourself, “what if….?”

In preventing the accidental release of compressed gases, all precautions must be taken to avoid dropping, knocking over, rolling or dragging cylinders as well as striking cylinders against each other. This means that it is imperative that all cylinders be stabilized in storage, transportation, and in use.

Gervais said he thought the story he thought the story was “unbelievable,” but he was surprised to see the article made its way into a credible academic journal like the Journal of Chemical Education as well as university websites and other safety protocols.

The tale was mostly retold as a true story with no disclaimers about its origins such as by the US Department of Agriculture or by Canada’s National Lifeguard Service (which gives it the title “Cylinder Hazard — A True Story”), Gervais noted. The Oklahoma State University site, however, did post a disclaimer (although we’re not sure when), which reads:

The following account of a wayward gas cylinder was found about 20 years ago in an old newsletter from a safety organization. The story was already several years old. The organization has asked that it not be attributed to them because they don’t know/can’t find the original account and don’t remember where this actually took place.

Nevertheless, it is still a good example of the forcefulness of a compressed gas cylinder and why it is important to handle one with caution.

Gervais continued his hunt for the story’s history, and found that it was previously published in a newsletter published in New York. Eventually, said Gervais, he was informed that the article originated from an internal newsletter published in 1969 by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company

Ultimately, Gervais’ aim is just to solve the mystery of where the tale of the errant cylinder started, as he told officials at the pharmaceutical company: did they want a mystery solved?

Much to his disappointment, however, Gervais has yet to track down the original authors, since the article was published so long ago. He told us his committee got the tale from the Journal of Chemical Education. The journal, he said, got it from a safety newsletter in New York, who in turn got it from Eli Lilly and Co. According to Gervais, along the trail, someone suggested that the original tale came from the University of Oklahoma, but no one has been able to verify its veracity.

Gervais’ guess is that safety newsletters and academic journals at the time wanted to use comedy as a literary tool. Here’s another outlandish one that Gervais sent us from around the same time period:

One of them involved a man and woman intimately involved except the dripping of a kitchen tap interfered with the moment. In his bathrobe he attempted to fix the tap leaving his posterior exposed to the air. A passing cat scratched the exposed butt, causing the plumber to hit his head, knocking himself out. Hearing the noise, she found her husband and called the ambulance. On the stretcher, the husband recalled the events to the ambulance personnel. Laughing so hard they dropped the plumber, breaking his arm.

At their worst, such myths in scholarly literature can not only confuse people, but also mislead them, said Gervais. Educational safety officers, for example,

…will go through our journals and take a look at articles like that. Next thing you know, they’ve got a ban on gas cylinders.

Although Gervais has never asked anyone to retract the article, we’ve contacted the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chemical Education to ask if the journal has any intentions of pulling the article. As of yet, we haven’t heard back.

It’s easy for Gervais to see how untruthful accounts can accumulate. Gervais’ science teachers committee, which has around 4,000 members, published an online journal — Crucible (which is now a blog) — about hazardous incidents, like gas leaks, that took place in schools. They called the feature “learning by accident.” But, Gervais added, because such incidents were so rare, the journal began to run out of content. So, contributors came up with a solution: they started making up the scenarios.

When Gervais became the chair of the organization, however, he began to make sure all the magazine’s content was truthful — as learning by accident implies.

And now, Gervais is conducting the daunting task of going through decades of the magazine’s archives and retracting articles that he knows to be fictitious; so far, he has removed six or seven articles from the Crucible site. 

As for the tale of the errant cylinder, this is still on the Crucible site, but with a disclaimer about its authenticity, said Gervais. He does, however, plan to remove it entirely in the future. 

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10 thoughts on “The story of an errant cylinder has been used for decades as a cautionary lab tale. But is it true?”

  1. If anyone is in need of a TRUE cautionary tale, they need look no further than the Mumbai High North accident. It started with a chef on a ship cutting off his finger and ended with a oil platform sinking into the ocean as it burned, some 20 people dead. It serves to illustrate the need for attention to procedures, HMS and the value in reducing small accidents to prevent large ones.

    1. “At the time of this incident, no regulatory body or organization for the governance of offshore safety in oil and gas existed in India.”

      Almost every aspect of this story suggests the people working the rig/vessel were incompetent, and many safeguards that should have been in place weren’t. I don’t agree that a small incident sparked off a catastrophe here, in this case it was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

  2. This is confusing. We have a record of something that occurred. The record seems incredible, but is was written down by people at the time. If we are now going to make the “standard of credibility” that we have a living witness to verify and validate, what of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, of which no living witness can be found, or of the 1929 market crash, in which a number of persons allegedly jumped in NYC to their deaths. Are these accounts to be retracted as well?

    1. We don’t have a *firsthand* account. If this is the “standard of credibility”, then any urban legend could be published as fact.

  3. I think that there is considerable heuristic value in tales that are not entirely true, but that are completely plausible given the known hazards of various operations. The pressure in a gas cylinder is higher than the pressure in a small bore firearm, and the cylinder itself weighs about 60 kg, physics says that it can get up enough speed by rocket propulsion to punch through a 4-brick wall, or launch into the air, but often a story in a setting that people can relate to sticks better in the mind than a dry account of the possibilities, and makes them more cautious – which is surely the entire point of the exercise.

  4. So may we substitute the standard that something that theoretically is entirely possible may be considered to potentially have happened for the standard that someone was an eyewitness to its occurrence, so it must have happened?
    After all, the adage that “anything that CAN happen, WILL happen” still holds.

  5. There are several videos on Youtube to show what can happen if a gas cylinder for some reason starts to vent (without being protected against this), including one from the Mythbusters. No need for apocryphal stories, just show the videos.

  6. From the safety video I saw during my induction into working at the old Glaxo site in Greenford, valve-less cylinders don’t turn corners or ping around as this tale would suggest. The story behind the Glaxo incident – contractor making cylinder delivery unloads from back of truck and stands it upright in the road. Cylinder falls over and the valve is removed as it strikes the kerbside. The cylinder shoots off towards a building at knee height, goes straight through a brickwall, traverses a laboratory, goes through another brick wall and ends up in courtyard on opposite side of building. And it went in a very straight line, you could see clean through from one side to another of the building. No-one was injured, by the way.

    1. Indeed. This was addressed by Mythbusters (see below). Not to take away from the question of whether that exact story occured, but cylinders are well known to be potentially deadly. Even Liquid N2 tanks can be a problem if tampered with (just google “texas a&m nitrogen tank explosion”).

      MythBusters Episode 63: Air Cylinder Rocket

      Premier Date: October 18, 2006
      A compressed air cylinder can blast itself through a concrete wall.


      Once the MythBusters constructed a launch tube and perfected shearing off the cylinder’s valve, the cylinder shot entirely through their constructed cinder block wall and damaged the solid concrete wall behind it. The MythBusters were also aware of recorded instances of such a thing happening.

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