Balloon ascensions were popular entertainment in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century.

In those days they were usually powered by hydrogen gas. Balloon ascension acts were often featured at fairs and other places of amusement.

On June 23, 1900, the Daily Dispatch announced that there would be a balloon ascension Sunday June 24 at the Watch Tower Amusement Park. (Today that is the location of Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island.)

“At 4 p.m. “Professor” Baldwin, the famous aeronaut, will make his parachute leap from the clouds. Don’t miss it,” said the Dispatch.

Thomas Scott Baldwin was born in Quincy. He was considered the greatest aeronaut of the late 19th century.

Baldwin wore tights for his act. He sat on a trapeze bar attached to the balloon as he began the ascent. He was alone. He performed stunts, somersaults, flips and other gymnastic feats on the trapeze.

Baldwin’s feats were aided by his background as a circus high-trapeze artist. “Captain Tom” Baldwin made nearly 3,000 ascents from a balloon at fairs in the USA and Canada, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Baldwin’s parachute was attached to the side of the balloon. he would hold the cords of his parachute when he was ready to leave the balloon. Then he would leap from the balloon holding on to the parachute.

The weight of Baldwin falling snapped the tie holding the parachute. The usual jump was around 4,000 feet, according to the Illinois State Historical Society. Other sites believe it was only around 1,000 feet.

The parachute would open, and Baldwin would float to the ground. The balloon would usually land somewhere in a field.

Baldwin was also an inventor. He created the first parachute harness in 1887. In 1904, four years after his Black Hawk appearance, he helped the U.S. Army design its first dirigible. A decade later, he helped the U.S. Navy develop its first successful dirigible.

About a century after Captain Baldwin entertained locals, jumps from balloons were even more spectacular. On Oct. 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner stood up in a capsule that was attached to a helium balloon and jumped from the stratosphere. He landed in New Mexico.

Baumgartner, born in 1969 in Austria, set world records for skydiving an estimated 24 miles reaching an estimated top speed of 843.6 mph during his 2012 jump. (Brian Utley, official observer for the Contest and Records Board of the United States National Aeronautics Association.) On some of Baldwin’s jumps, he would use the parachute at 4,000 feet. Baumgartner chose 5,000 feet.

Baumgartner’s hero was the U.S. Air Force’s Thomas Kittinger. In the late 1950s, Kittinger established records for high-altitude jumps. He lost consciousness during a 1959 jump from 76,400 feet. His automatic parachute opener saved him. A year later, in August 1960, he successfully jumped from 102,800 feet.

Baumgartner had the 84-year-old Col. Kittinger handle capsule communications in 2012. He argued that only Kittinger had the experience needed to give him good advice.

Baumgarten’s parachute landing in the New Mexico desert was done so smoothly that it would have delighted “Baldwin.

(Sources include redbullstratos.com. YouTube has a video of Baumgartner’s jump- “Red Bull Stratos Balloon Jump From the Edge of Space. William Anderson, professor emeritus, contributed to this article.)

Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a retired Rock Island teacher.


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