21 January 2014

New Zealand’s first flight

One of the daring parachutists in his rather effeminate costume
If you’re a google user, you may have noticed in October last year there was a google doodle to celebrate the 216th anniversary of the first-ever parachute jump, by French aeronaut André-Jacques Garnerin on 22 October 1797. But did you know that New Zealand’s first parachute jump was made 124 years ago today, on 21 January 1889, by American aeronaut Thomas Baldwin? And my great-great granddaddy Fred Bust helped organise it!

Baldwin’s visit to New Zealand was sponsored by William E. Akroyd, who was the husband of my great-great grandfather’s step-sister Emily. By all accounts, Akroyd and Baldwin met in England while Akroyd was on a trip ‘home’ and Akroyd subsequently arranged for his brother-in-law Fred Bust to handle the logistics of Baldwin’s visit on the ground (and in the air!) in New Zealand.

In his book A Passion for Flight, aviation historian Errol Martyn explains this aerial phenomenon:

During the 1890s and early 1900s, touring ‘aeronauts’, often glamorising themselves with self-appointed ‘Captain’ or ‘Professor’ titles, travelled the world to entertain people with death-defying acts from large hot-air or gas-filled balloons. During an ascent the aeronaut might perform acrobatic acts on a trapeze hung underneath the balloon or parachute from it to earth, or a combination of both. Alarming as it may seem today, no harness was worn to secure the jumper to his parachute. When he leaped from his slender, swing-like rope sling suspended from the balloon, a tie would break and for the entire descent he then simply hung on by his hands to the metal ring, or hoop, to which were fixed the canopy's shroud lines.
Town and Country Journal illustration of parachutist, 19 November 1887

The hype for the New Zealand visit started the previous year. This from The Colonist newspaper, 24 April 1888:

What is to be gained by such feats as throwing oneself from a balloon five thousand from the ground? Thomas S. Baldwin, of Quincy Illinois, is the name of the young man who has done this exciting feat. He travelled for several years with a circus as a professional gymnast; then took to tight rope walking and finally to ballooning. His first jump from a balloon was made in January of this year at San Francisco. He jumped from a height of 1000 ft. This was enough to thrill 25,000 people, but it was only the modest beginning. At Syracuse, September last, he had attained an elevation of 5000 ft before he switched off on the parachute route. He says that it is a "funny thing to be performing a feat for an audience so far below you that you cannot see anything but a dark spot on the earth. When you get up so very high in a balloon, I do not think that a person is so inclined to feel dizzy as at a much less height from which he can compare the relative altitudes. But l am not subject to dizziness, My training as a circus man has got me pretty well accustomed to things which call for coolness. I do not lose my head, and do everything as coolly as if I were on the ground. The strain on the arms is usually the only thing that bothers me. I must get that stopped if I can, or else I may have to drop the business." He has received two gold medals from his fellow townsmen for the feats he has performed.

An advertisement for Baldwin's later Auckland jump,
Observer, 2 February 1889
Baldwin’s first New Zealand parachute jump was to take place in Dunedin on Saturday 19 January, followed by further jumps in Christchurch and Auckland. The Otago Daily Times published this advance report on 16 January 1889:

Professor Baldwin, the daring aeronaut, who has been creating such a sensation in Great Britain by his descents—or, more correctly speaking, flights—from a balloon, reached Dunedin yesterday. He will give an exhibition on the Caledonian grounds on Saturday afternoon [19 January], and as this is the first time the public have had an opportunity of witnessing any such performance, the aeronaut and his balloon will attract considerable attention. The professor is accompanied by Mr Farini, a famous showman—the English Barnum,—and from him we obtained some particulars of the professor and his apparatus which should be of interest. In the first place, then, Professor Baldwin has by careful calculations and observations obtained great control over both the balloon and parachute, and this enables him, unless in the case of a very strong breeze, to land within a very short distance of the place from which the ascent was made—generally not more than 40 or 50 yards, away. At first the balloons were in the habit of getting away, and on more than one occasion when an ascent was made at the Alexandra Palace, London, the balloon wandered away and was picked up in France; now it generally happens that the balloon reaches the ground within a few seconds of the parachute.
The balloon used is very light, with no paraphernalia. It is made of silk prepared with a chemical covering. It has neither car, nor ballast, nor grappling irons. Attached to it is the parachute, which is simplicity itself. It is perfectly flexible, made of thin Tussora silk, and is mushroom shaped at the top. In the centre of the top there is a hole about 2ft in diameter, by which the professor is able to balance the parachute and keep it vertical. There is just so much surface exposed as is required for the weight of a man. It is tied to the side of the balloon by a cord, which breaks on having to bear a support of more than 90 lb. As soon as the professor reaches the desired height, generally about 1000 ft, he seizes the parachute, and the balloon, freed of his weight, is seen at once to shoot higher in the air. For the smallest possible space the aeronaut appears to be motionless, and then the onlooker has to hold his breath as faster and faster for 200 ft or 300 ft he drops like a stone, the parachute being then a shapeless mass. As it distends the pace steadily decreases, and the professor is seen slowly descending, holding on to the parachute by his arms only. So gently is it managed at the finish that he appears to be floating in the air. After the descent Professor Baldwin gives a short and interesting lecture to the spectators.

An advertisement for Baldwin's later Auckland jump,
Observer, 2 February 1889
Unfortunately, the events of 19 January did not go as planned, as Errol Martyn explains:

… some 5000 spectators, including those from Balclutha for whom a special train had been laid on, attended the Caledonian ground on Saturday the 19th to witness the performance. Many thousands of others, averse to being separated from their shilling entrance fee, lined the surrounding hills to look on from a "Scotsman's grandstand".
All through the afternoon and into the evening, Baldwin and Farini struggled to inflate the balloon in front of the grandstand in the face of a cold and gusty northeasterly wind. Baldwin, who said he was prepared to go up in any breeze under 10 miles an hour, hoped for a lull at about 6pm but it did not eventuate. By 7pm, despite having given a short speech to the crowd that if there were the slightest chance before dark he would go up, people began leaving the ground.
A minor disturbance occurred when a few spectators vented their annoyance upon Baldwin at the cancellation, but his friends escorted him through the stand to the safety of a waiting hansom cab.

The event was rescheduled for Monday the 21st and, by 7pm, thousands had again gathered on and round the Caledonian ground. What they were about to witness for the first time in New Zealand was described in the following day's Otago Daily Times:

Another large crowd assembled on and round about the Caledonian ground by 7 o'clock yesterday evening to see Professor Baldwin take his daring flight through the air. Within the enclosure there were not nearly so many people as on Saturday, but the hill at the rear of Smith and Fotheringham's brickworks and the Town Belt at Montecillo were packed with sightseers, who had a good view of the exhibition without going through the idle ceremony of paying a shilling.
As the advertised time for the ascent approached considerable doubt was entertained among the public as to whether the balloon would get safely away after all, rather a brisk breeze springing up just before sundown. However, Professor Baldwin continued actively superintending the inflation of his balloon, which was rather dangerously agitated by the gusts of wind every now and then.
At a few minutes before 7, Professor Baldwin mounted a form and, as before, made a short preliminary speech to the spectators. He is a well-built, lithe-limbed American, with dark complexion and moustache, good-looking, and with considerable alertness and resolution in his manner. That he is a man of wonderful pluck and iron nerve, his aerial feats amply testify. Standing up to address his patrons, attired in the orthodox silk hat and black frock coat, he looks scarcely like a man on the eve of taking such a startling journey. He might be intending to sell some town allotments, or say a few words on the political situation. A little later, divested of hat and coat, quick yet cool amid fill the bustle attending his departure, he is seen at his best.
What the professor has now to say is brief and to the point. He explains Saturday's failure in a frank and manly way. The pressure of so high a wind on the frail fabric of the balloon was not to be withstood, but had it not been for the purely accidental bursting, he himself would have been willing to make the ascent. He could control his balloon and his parachute once he got fairly away, but be could not control the elements. In spite of the wind then blowing, he would endeavour to make the ascent that evening at 7 o'clock sharp— ie, in 10 minutes' time—and he begged them all to stand back and keep quiet while the attempt was made. There would be danger again of the balloon bursting in that wind, directly it was raised off the ground, and the air pressure got underneath it; but if such an accident did happen it would not be his fault. If he could only get up he would guarantee to come down right enough.
He regretted to see a statement in that evening's paper to the effect that he had purposely ripped the balloon up on Saturday. He was not standing within yards of it at the time, and it was certainly no advantage to him at his first exhibition in a new country to tamper with the feelings of the public. If he had to stay here all the summer he would give them an ascent as promised, and he could assure them he would rather lose a leg than miss the ascent that evening.
This short speech was well received by the people, and Mr Baldwin then hurried away and began to make final preparations for his excursion, in which he was assisted by his manager, Mr Farini. The balloon was raised well off the ground, being held captive by several men, and although it swayed rather violently in the breeze the fabric kept together on this occasion. Everything being nearly completed, Professor Baldwin, who is now bareheaded and clad in a dark close-fitting vest, runs across to a bench near at hand and gives his wife a hasty parting kiss. There is nothing whatever of the theatrical element about this ceremony, which is quickly and unostentatiously performed, and is not even observed by the majority of the spectators.
Confident as the aeronaut is in the efficacy of his invention, he is probably too shrewd a man not to recognise that the wisest schemes of mice and men “gang aft aglee." He has all the assurance of safety that personal attention to his apparatus and splendid coolness and nerve can give him, but there are chances against him too. Some blunder on the part of an attendant, or some unforeseen hitch at the last moment, may wreck him before he is sufficiently clear of the earth to rely upon his parachute,—or what if away in the clouds some little thing—some very little thing—should go amiss with the parachute itself?
Professor Baldwin, no doubt, does not believe in this latter contingency, and would bet long odds against the parachute ever failing him. It is to be hoped it never will, and that the adage about the pitcher and the well will not be verified in the case of this daring man. His leave taking over, the professor bends down and disappears for some minutes within the folds of some silky looking drapery, which is held for him by Mr Fanni. This mass of limp-looking cloth is the wonderful parachute, and it may easily be guessed what Professor Baldwin is doing inside it. He is adjusting the hoop which, when the machine is expanded, will form the orifice at the top, and this orifice through which the air escapes in his descent is perhaps the most important feature about Mr Bald win's invention.
He emerges presently, and then the folded parachute is drawn up to the netting which hangs loose around the neck of the balloon. It can be seen that depending from the parachute are a number of long ropes attached to a stout hoop, which is presently passed over the aeronaut's head. In descending he will hang by both hands to this hoop. 

Baldwin performing in England, Illustrated London News, 13 September 1888
There is a great shouting of orders now, and the excitement among the spectators is very great. "Lift her up," cries Professor Baldwin, “but hold her," and as the struggling balloon rides a few yards above the ground he is seen to have taken his position immediately below her, and to be surrounded by a confusing array of ropes. An excited shout by Mr Farini to some assistant to "Leave go of that rope" shows that it is a critical moment, and then, before the spectators well realise it, balloon and balloonist, are away.
She mounts swiftly and smoothly like a bird released, the professor sitting apparently upon some small bar with outstretched hands, in much the attitude of a driver handling a team of horses. Spontaneous cheering and applause break from the crowd at the ascent, but it is only matter of seconds before the bold aeronaut is out of ear shot. The ascent is made from the leeward side of the stand, and the wind being from the north-east, the balloon is driven at once in the direction of Caversham. In consequence of this wind which is taking him rapidly away from the spectators, Professor Baldwin does not go to anything like the height he has sometimes reached. He goes so high, however, that he and his balloon look very small objects indeed against the clear sky. About 1000ft would perhaps be the height and it has taken an incredibly short space of time for him to reach it. Before his movements become indistinguishable with the naked eye he has flexed his leg and has his foot into a loop of rope that is hanging within reach.
Suddenly there is an unmistakable movement in the diminutive figure aloft, and the next instant the folded parachute and its inventor have left the balloon which turns upside down and floats aimlessly about in the empyrean for awhile. The parachute retains its limp appearance, and at the end of the long ropes that depend from it is the figure of the falling balloonist. He is holding on with his arms raised above his head, and his whole form is perfectly rigid feet together and frame erect. He comes down in that fashion as straight as a stone and in a standing posture for neatly half his journey, and then the onlookers draw a sudden breath of relief, for the air has caught the parachute, and it has expanded into umbrella shape. The aeronaut's fall is instantly checked, and from that point he descends steadily with a gentle swaying motion that soon brings him apparently among the rooftops of South Dunedin. Here he swings himself into a sitting posture, evidently steering the parachute towards a safe alighting place, and finally comes easily to earth in a vacant section off the Cargill road, near the Railway Workshops Hotel.
Ten minutes later the professor was again at the Caledonian ground and, accompanied by Mr Farini, appeared in the front of the stand, receiving quite an ovation. He then gave a short address as announced, claiming (of course with perfect truth) to have made the first descent of the kind that had ever been attempted in New Zealand. The parachute, of which he was the originator, required, he explained, two feet of surface to every pound weight of the object attached to it. The orifice at the top was 18in or 20in in diameter, and this, by allowing the compressed air in the parachute to escape, formed a kind of column of air, down which he slid. As regarded the long drop before the parachute expanded, that was merely a bit of sensationalism he introduced. How soon the parachute expanded depended upon the size of the hoop he placed in the orifice at the top. He could, if he desired it, make the parachute expand directly after leaving the balloon. Mr Farini, who followed with a few words, added some further information as to the way in which Professor Baldwin had perfected his invention, and remarked that having solved the difficulty, there had yet remained the necessity of finding a plucky fellow to jump from the balloon and test the truth of the theory. That man they had found in Professor Baldwin.—(Loud applause.)

In today’s world, where thousands of travellers circle the globe daily in airplanes and, not so long ago, Felix Baumgartner astounded us all with his record-breaking jump from 38,969.3 metres up in the stratosphere, it’s difficult to get excited about Baldwin’s parachute jump. But there has to be a first time for everything and I’m sure those Dunedin folks back in 1889 were equally astounded to witness New Zealand’s first official human flight.

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