Professor Baldwin, the Victorian Daredevil

In the summer of 1888 Londoners flocked in their thousands to marvel at the feats of a dashing American daredevil calling himself Professor Baldwin.

The adverts placed in the Times promised it would be ‘the greatest scientific sensation of the age’ but only hinted at what was planned:

Professor Baldwin has succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

Baldwin’s act was in fact the Victorian equivalent of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive earlier this week, albeit only from a few thousand feet rather than 120,000ft.

Like Baumgartner, he ascended in a balloon before jumping off and parachuting down to safety. This being 1888, the modern parachute was still in its infancy, and illustrations from the Illustrated London News reveal how ‘amateur’ the stunt was compared to Baumgartner’s.

Professor Baldwin

First the balloon is filled with hydrogen gas, while kept weighted to the ground

Professor Baldwin

The parachute is fixed to the side of the balloon

Professor Baldwin

Professor Baldwin kisses his wife goodbye. I bet that moustache tickles.

Professor Baldwin

The moment before Professor Baldwin is lifted up into the air by the balloon. Note how he is sitting on a trapeze, holding the balloon with one hand and the cords of the parachute in the other.

Professor Baldwin leaps

Baldwin (inset) leaps from the balloon holding on to the parachute. The force of his fall snaps the tie holding the parachute to the balloon.

Professor Baldwin floats down to earth

The parachute fills with air and Professor Baldwin floats down to the ground

Baldwin, who had perfected his act in America before travelling to England, made his first jump at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, July 28, 1888. As The Times reported:

The aeronaut, who went up alone, and was dressed in tights, held on by the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon and the umbrella hanging by his side. The balloon speedily attained a great height and then the aeronaut leaped or dropped away from it. A moment afterwards he was seen at some distance from the balloon high up in the air beyond the racecourse of the Palace, gracefully, steadily, and quickly descending with his umbrella opened out above him like a monster mushroom.

After landing Baldwin returned to the Palace to be ‘enthusiastically cheered by the thousands of spectators in the Palace grounds and the adjoining fields.’ Although the Times reporter doubted whether Baldwin reached the height of 1,000ft being claimed, he noted that ‘it was certainly one of the most extraordinary and successful sensational feats of modern times.’

Thomas Scott Baldwin is now remembered as ‘The Father of the Modern Parachute’ (previous versions having ribs like umbrellas) and its worth was proved 23 years later when Grant Morton made the first successful jump from an aeroplane in California in 1911.

One-hundred-and-one years later Felix Baumgartner did this:


2 thoughts on “Professor Baldwin, the Victorian Daredevil

  1. I remember seeing an attempt to launch a hygrogen-filled balloon from the grounds of Ally Pally in the late 1950s when I was a boy. The balloon was bright orange and spherical in shape. It was a Sunday afternoon I think and the balloon was being inflated with the gas from numerous cylinders. There was a basket underneath which would have been able to hold one or two people. Sadly it was windy and although the filling of the balloon continued for some time, in the end it was declared too windy to attempt a launch and they had to let all of the gas out again. Then I went home for my tea.

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