Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Max Headroom Incident

This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…

Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I”
This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.

The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.

Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, surrounded by Daleks.


Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.

That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.

The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.  

In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.


While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.

Shaye St John.


Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.  

One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.

In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.  



On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800
.

Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

Frau Troffea’s dance with the devil.

Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel.
At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.

By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.


Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.



On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.

A modern bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht.

Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.   

What could have caused such an incident?

In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death.  
In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.

What goes up…. The Ballad of Franz Reichelt.

Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.

Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.

Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.

Icarus


The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq.
Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.


Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.

In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself.
In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.

While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.


Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.


To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.


Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.

The Wright Brothers

By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky,  in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.

Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.

Lenormand parachutes to safety.

In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.

In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.

All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars.
Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..


A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.

While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.