Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Runaway Balloon - Centennial Moments

This article was originally published on the Lone Star Iconoclast on:

Monday, August 17, 2009 
By Melinda Pillsbury-Foster 

Connecting the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 - First nature movie October 1909, Yosemite - Centennial U.S. Air Show, Dominguez Hills, Jan.10-20, 1910.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Oct. 31, 1909)  The Fairy’s first flight had taken its aeronaut 10,000 feet into the sky in uncontrolled motion. The aeronaut, Arthur C. Pillsbury, had been finishing up a day’s photography, teeth chattering, when the white balloon had been driven by a sudden violent wind across the Bay, towing the small boat to which it was tethered in its wake. The Fairy, ripped from its anchorage, shot into the air. No one thought Pillsbury would survive. The Fairy was not designed for free flight, the flight community knew that. What we know can change rapidly.

Pillsbury had spent the day chronicling the rebuilding of San Francisco, taking panoramic photos and conventional stills. He had done the same on April 18, 1906 from the ground. The first day panoramas showing the city boiling with smoke and fire were made on the circuit panorama he designed as his senior project at Stanford in 1897.

Anywhere Pillsbury could go to get enticing images, he went. Slowly releasing the gas from the balloon, clinging to the torn rigging for his life, Pillsbury came down in the mud flats north of San Jose. His film was nearly intact and he was without the fear of heights that had troubled him all of his life. Life brings unexpected gifts.

On Jan.10 the next year, 1910, the Fairy was tethered above the field where the first air show in the United States was taking place in Dominguez Hills near Los Angeles. The men who built and flew the planes, dirigibles, and balloons were doing something never before seen to the shock and delight of multitudes. In the March issue of Sunset Magazine an article from Pillsbury appeared . He had filmed events from 300 feet in the sky sitting, as he reported, "on a few sand-bags in the basket of the balloon, with my legs through the net that held the shallow basket, kept my busy camera outside the net. It was a daily position to be envied really by occupants of the grandstand and boxes who had paid many dollars for their lower vantage points. At a height of 300 feet above the 40 thousand spectators, sounds came in waves and masses, and the shrill barking of souvenir program, hot peanuts and bottled beer venders was like the sharp rattle of small guns in a cannonade."

Air flight was the impractical indulgence of a few enthusiasts. No one foresaw commercial flight.

In 1901 the Sierra Club’s first outing saw 96 participants on a trip to Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, beginning a tradition of annual High Trips. By 1910 the membership of the Sierra Club was approximately 1,000. Muir was still focused on saving the Hetch Hetchy.

Late the previous year, 1909, just before his first adventure in the Fairy, Pillsbury had shown the first nature movie at his studio in Yosemite Valley. Using film to bring nature to people instead of taking people into the wilderness would become the strategy used to mainstream a love of nature among people who, in the newly urbanized America, never encountered it in their own lives.

Many suspected the world would never be the same again. They were more correct than they knew. The meeting of several innovations was about to transform the world in ways none of them had imagined.

Flight, photography, and new understanding would become powerful allies, still working its magic with us today. A flower raising its head to the sun, its motion increased to be visible to the human eye, stopped the mowing of meadows in Yosemite in 1912. Photography, in movies and in science, changed what people knew as true.

Photography opened up worlds to human vision. Flight made the world smaller and more accessible. Seeing, through photography, provided insights into the nature of the world around us. And a man you probably never heard of built the cameras. Arthur C. Pillsbury. 1927 – First microscopic motion picture camera. 1929 – First X-Ray motion picture camera. 1930 – first underwater nature movie and camera. Starting this year, celebrate a century of increasing human understanding through innovations in photography.


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