Balloon Jumping: Yesterday's Fun (and Dangerous) Sport of the Future
Faster than a speeding dirigible! More powerful than a horseless carriage! Able to leap short cottages in a single bound! It's a bird! It's an aeroplane! It's a... jumper balloon?
In the go-go 1920s, everything was looking up. People imagined that the skies of the future would soon be dotted with airships and flying cars. And one promising "sport of the future" to come out of this era looks pretty damn fun: balloon jumping.
The idea was to find a balloon that was buoyant enough to lift you off your feet, but not so buoyant that you'd drift uncontrollably into the sky. The January 1927 issue of Science and Invention magazine described how such a balloon could be outfitted with a harness and would let the futuristic sportsman, "jump over a house, across a wide stream and even over fences and trees."
The magazine included an illustration of the sport (above), and described how they'd gotten wind of balloon jumping experiments already happening in London. They hoped that this latest sporting fad would surely invade the United States sometime soon.
From Science and Invention:
Races with balloons of this sort would undoubtedly be great fun and the danger would be very slight. Obstacle races of course would be the most fun because you then bring the advantages of the balloons into full play. We hope to soon see this sport developed by some American balloon manufacturer in this country.
British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for the Sherlock Holmes series, tried to take credit for the idea of balloon jumping in March of 1927, though he cautioned that it may be too dangerous for the average person. His solution to improve safety? Everybody should just lose some weight.
"I feel that too much should not be attempted," Doyle told the Associated Press. "If the margin between the man's weight and the lifting power is only a few pounds, and huge leaps are made it will mean a loss of control and be the cause of many accidents. What is needed is to turn the fifteen stone man into a five stone man, so that he can go on his way swiftly and without fatigue."
The buzz around this futuristic sport quickly spread in newspapers and magazines around the U.S., including places like Time and Forum. The appropriately named Frederick S. Hoppin wrote an article for the August 1927 issue of Forum (with illustrations by Johan Bull), romantically describing the sport as easy, safe, and incredibly fun.
Each time when he alights after a jump, the jumper takes a few slow steps until the balloon stops descending and begins to rise again, just as a flyfisherman waits for his line to straighten out on his back cast. Otherwise this game demands no special skill or technique, but just a little practice. A gentle wind, an open country, and a very slight balance of weight in favor of the man over the balloon are the essentials. Besides, the tradition of the dangers of the large balloon has made men provide the jumpers with all kinds of safety devices, — bags of sand to further balance the upward pull of the balloon, safety catches to enable the jumper to slip easily out of the harness if, on landing, a sudden gust of wind begins to drag him along with it, and even a rope around the waist attached by its other end to some one on the ground, to keep the jumper from being turned by too strong a gust into the tail of a runaway kite.
Some people took it even further into the future, imagining it as an exciting new method of practical transportation. The July 19, 1927 edition of the Joplin News Herald in Joplin, Missouri described it as potentially being helpful for the "stout" and the "elderly" in climbing steep hills or crossing a brook without need of a bridge. Everyone might one day benefit from such a device, they claimed:
How helpful this sort of thing would be. We could strip the spring cherry tree without endangering our legs. We could dispense with elevators and enter our offices on the third or fourth floors by merely leaping up to the window and crawling in. We could do a thousand and one things easily that we now do with difficulty.
But despite its promise as both the sport and personal transportation device of the future, balloon jumping wasn't perhaps as safe as so many assumed. It was imagined that average people would soon be hopping around the countryside without a care in the world, but even experts struggled with the emerging sport. In March of 1927, an experienced parachute jumper by the name of Sergeant Frank Dobbs was killed in the U.K. while balloon jumping. Dobbs grabbed onto a live electrical wire and was electrocuted to death.
The U.S. would not see balloon jumping take off either as a widely adopted sport, nor as a very practical way to get from point A to point B. But for a brief period in the late 1920s — with new innovations in commercial aviation and new aerial records being set each year — it's easy to understand why everyone was looking to the skies for the fun and games of tomorrow.