A Leap from the Clouds
The Balloon-Parachute Act and the Daredevil Heritage of Aviation
by Jerry Kuntz
Contemplating how certain activities captivate some people prompted a line of inquiry for this book’s author who is particularly drawn to learning and writing about little-known characters and events in American subcultures especially from the 1850–1930 timeframe. Specifically Jerry Kuntz sought to try and understand what motivated “ambitious and fearless . . . early parachutists [who were] otherwise unskilled, [perhaps] desperate for income, and often untethered to a stable family life” to become “artiste parachutists.” These men and women become the subjects populating the pages of A Leap from the Clouds.
Typical of a McFarland & Company published book, this one has a generous bibliography with Kuntz describing each volume as a “must read.” Many are referenced by chapter end notes. The end notes are also well populated with references to daily newspapers that had published relevant articles back in the day. The book is thoroughly indexed and includes a 17-page appendix listing “Notable Balloon-Parachute Era Aeronauts” arranged alphabetically, approximately 25 per page (you do the math!).
It began with ballooning, some inflated with hot air and smoke, others with hydrogen. By the latter 1880s merely going aloft in a balloon wasn’t novel or thrilling enough so the balloonists graduated to either hanging from a trapeze beneath their balloon and letting go or leaping completely free of a basket and, with the aid of what today we’d describe as rudimentary parachutes, hoping to return to earth unscathed. Kuntz describes the center tier of states in the US as the “hotbed” where it all began. In ensuing chapters he relates as “The Craze Arrives in Britain” and then becomes “A Global Frenzy.”
A word you likely don’t use often, or perhaps have never heard much less used, appears with some frequency in this book. That word is funambulist. It doesn’t apply directly to ballooning or parachuting but rather an activity a number of those who became balloonists and/or parachutists had engaged in previously.
More modern day funambulists were the Great Wallendas. The names that would have been familiar to those living in the latter 1800s/earliest 1900s who had strung their line across the Niagara River Gorge included Charles Blondin, Harry Leslie, and another known by various performer names but whose real name was John Wesley Biggerstaff. Biggerstaff, writes Kuntz, came from a respectable Ohio family and “gave up the prospect of a safe and valued profession [as a physician] to become a tightrope walker [and] quickly became one of the best in America.”
The book’s cover art may appear fanciful but it reflect realities of those late 1800s/early 1900s for artiste parachutists absolutely did go aloft sitting on a trapeze slung beneath their rising balloon as shown with a parachute slung alongside. When the parachutist dropped the then unburdened balloon tipped over, loosing its air and fell back to earth arriving before its rider had landed.
Kuntz may not have discovered what character trait motivated these aeronauts, but proliferate they did. Then, “as the first decade of the twentieth century unfolded, public interest in airships and airplanes skyrocketed, rendering the balloon-parachute act . . . faltering.” And he concludes that, “while balloon-parachute act[s] brought minimal application to aeronautics, those who performed [them] had a great impact on the development of aviation.”
That A Leap from the Clouds turned out to be the fine and fun, edifying and engaging read it was came as no surprise once your commentator learned it isn’t Jerry Kuntz’s first, but rather his tenth, book. Moreover his day job as a librarian and historical researcher couldn’t be more fitting. So even as funambulists were fascinating me, Kuntz, no doubt, is already engaged in discovering another story to share with readers.
Copyright 2023 Helen V Hutchings, SAH (speedreaders.info)