Harvard's Big Bubble Collapses

Last year, Harvard had an adequate indoor track facility. This year Harvard does not.

On a wet and windy December 21 afternoon, high winds ripped one corner of Harvard's 5-year-old temporary track bubble and within two minutes the vinyl-coated nylon, air-supported structure had completely collapsed.

The bubble, known officially as the Farrell Intercollegiate Track facility, was first opened in 1968 and was one of the world's largest air-inflated structures. Three blowers heated the interior of the 150-ft. wide, 300-ft. long and 60-ft. high structure.

The University has still not released an official report explaining the reasons for the bubble's collapse. Its manufacturers, Air Tech Industries, of Clifton, N.J., claim that it was designed to withstand winds of up to 80 miles per hour. The winds which felled the structure were gusting at only slightly above 40 miles per hour.

The $300,000 facility was financed through the Friends of Harvard Track, mainly from the contributions of Albert H. Gordon '23. Gordon said several weeks ago that he was disappointed the University had not sent him a detailed report on the collapse and that he suspected the University did not maintain its athletic facilities as well as it could.


Since then Dr. Chase N. Peterson, vice president for alumni affairs and development, has sent Gordon a report prepared by the Department of Buildings and Grounds, the Athletic Department, and Peterson's office.

Although the contents of the report prepared for Gordon have not been made public. The Crimson has learned that the collapse was blamed on a sunlight-weakened seam and the failure of an alarm system to summon an engineer when the winds reached gale force.

The bubble's manufacturer has claimed that it probably collapsed because of decreased air pressure resulting from the University's attempt to save fuel during the Christmas holidays.

The bubble was equipped, however, with an automatic pressure regulator which increased the pressure inside as winds outside grew stronger. This enabled the structure to better withstand high winds. Although the pressure in the bubble during the Christmas recess had been reduced, the official University report states that the automatic system pumped more pressure into the bubble as the winds from the winter ice storm increased.

However, when the winds reach above 40 miles an hour, an alarm should have sounded which would have summoned an engineer from B & G. This system was designed as a safety precaution, so the engineer could decide whether or not to inflate the bubble even higher.

It is not clear whether the engineer--even if one had been summoned and he had built up the air pressure--could have prevented the bubble's collapse, however, because the rip which caused it came at a weakened seam.

After the collapse, the University ran a series of strength tests to determine if the seam had given way under lower strain than guaranteed by its manufacturer. Under test conditions, the seams reportedly gave way at only about one fifth of the pressure they were supposed to withstand. Apparently the nylon cord used for the seams had badly decomposed from five years of ultra-violet rays of the sunlight.

In 1968, air-inflated bubbles were in their experimental stages and the manufacturer did not know the cord would decompose. Since then, all of the makers of similar structures have switched to a polyester cord which does not decompose.

Air Tech assured the University in 1968 that the bubble would last from seven to ten years. However, other institutions which have also purchased bubbles have seen them collapse at an even younger age.

Peterson and athletic director Robert B. Watson '39 said that it is highly unlikely the University will attempt to rebuild the bubble because of the high waste of energy in inflating and heating it and the expected difficulty in re-obtaining permits for it from the City of Boston.

Instead, Harvard will attempt to secure a more permanent facility as part of the fund drive for athletics. The actual track which was inside the bubble will be stored, however, to be set in whatever facility Harvard does build.

Harvard insures its own facilities on the basis of a yearly depreciating value, Peterson said, so the insurance claim for the fallen bubble will not amount to nearly what the structure originally cost.