"Flying isn’t the hard part; landing in the net is" - Mario Zacchini

Mankind always admired the birds, and seems to have envied them their flight far more than their feathers. Over the years, attempts to emulate them and fly through the air have continued, but surely, rarely in such madcap manner as this.

Less graceful than the trapeze artistes, more dangerous than the wall of death, louder than any clown, the human cannonball still draws 'em in. Not so much now as a circus act, it has to be said, but the act of firing a fragile bag of skin, sinew and bone into a net can still draw a gasp of astonishment, in much the same way as the motorcycle daredevils such as Evel Knievel.

A Brief History of Human Artillery

Presumably looking for greater thrills and spills, "The Great Farini" (Englishman, WiIlliam Hunt) is considered to be the inventor of this crazy display. In 1871 he developed and patented a mechanism for launching the human frame through the air into a safety net. At least, in principle. His invention was powered by rubber springs and demonstrated in a London music hall act. His device was an open framework, whose sole aim was to get a performer into the air, pretty much like a cross between a trampoline and a vertical bungee jump. The first public demonstation took place a when a young man called Lulu was the first performer to use it, with a "jump" of 40 feet (12 m).

The act became more effective as a crowd-puller when the launching mechanism was hidden away, and a cannon barrel added. By 1875, the first true Human Cannonball, George Loyal, led the way in using this design, which was patented in 1879 by William Leonard Smith. Meanwhile, Farini continued to develop both the technology and the act, and by 1882, he and his sidekick cannonball, "Zazel" were appearing in P.T. Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth". Plagued by reliability problems, and lack of power, the act soon fell into decline, and other acts such as the Diavolo bicycle acts become more popular.

By the 1920s, Idelbrando Zacchini (an Italian circus acrobat) had developed a new twist to Farini's invention - his air-powered cannon played to the danger-seeking crowds, and his showmanship was better. The addition of a loud bang and clouds of smoke on discharge of the cannon added another dimension to the act, which began to draw more crowds throughout Europe, his sons acting as the cannonballs. Finally, in 1929 John Ringling brought their act to America.

Variations on the theme continued to develop, including the double-cannon, developed by two of Zacchini's sons, Mario and Emanuel, and by the late 1930s, this new act was touring as part of their own carnival. The development of technology pushed the limits of human ballistics to the point where the Zacchini family were being launched over Ferris wheels. The crowd lapped it up, although it was, of course, not without risk to the performers - the brothers often sustained injury (it is as well that the Zacchini family included seven boys) and Mario himself was forced to retire in 1940 from injuries during a performance at the World's Fair.

Nowadays, the act is most often performed outside the circus, and is often more concerned with attempts at breaking world records. For a long time, Emanuel Zacchini held the world record distance of 175 feet (53 metres) (set in 1940). This in turn was broken by the current holder, David "Cannonball" Smith, who managed a massive horizontal shot of 185 feet and 10 inches (56.64 m) in 1998 (the record was broken in a "duelling Cannons" event - his son managed a grand 181 feet (55.19 m) at the same time.

Death and Disarray

There have inevitably been injuries, even deaths. Two of the Zacchini family collided in mid-air after being shot from opposite ends of a circus ring, resulting in a broken back for Mario. In 1974, 21-year old Mary Connors went for a record-breaking shot near Bristol. Her attempt to be fired across the River Avon fell flat when she landed in the water, and the situation was exacerbated when the rescue boat capsized, leaving her and two rescuers floundering until a frogman could pull them to safety.

Given the conditions, it is hardly surprising that injuries occur. Launch acceleration can reach 12G, and in attaining speeds of up to 90 mph (140kph) and heights of around 100 feet (30 metres), there is always the risk of missing the safety net and landing hard. In all, 30 cannonballs have died over the years, but it seems that this statistic is not enough to put off the thrill-seeker. In the words of David Smith himself, "I love this lifestyle! I am able to do something that is entertaining for people".

The Guinness Book of Records
Inspired by Sluggy Freelance, believe it or not.

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