Harry Houdini is still famous as a magician and escapologist, but he was also a pioneer aviator. One hundred years ago today, on 18 March 1910, he carried out the first powered, controlled flight in Australia, at Diggers Rest, near Melbourne. This testimonial from witnesses appeared in the Melbourne Argus, 19 March 1910, 18:
To Whom It May Concern.
We, the undersigned, do hereby testify to the fact that on the above date, about 8 o'clock a.m., we witnessed Harry Houdini in a Voisin biplane (a French heavier than air machine) make three successful flights of from 1min. to 3½min., the last flight being of the lastmentioned duration. In his various flights he reached an altitude of 100ft., and in his longest flight traversed a distance of more than two miles.
HAROLD J. JAGELMAN, Kogarah, N.S.W.
ROBERT HOWIE, Diggers' Rest.
A. BRASSAC, Paris.
WALTER P. SMITH, 4 Blackwood-street, North Melbourne.
F. ENFIELD SMITHELLS, care of Union Bank, Melbourne.
RALPH C. BANKS, Melbourne, motor garage.
FRANZ KUKOL, Vienna.
V. L. VICKERY, Highgate, England.
JOHN H. JORDAN, 11 Francis-street, Ascot-vale.
Houdini was on a tour of Australia, and the flight was undertaken to generate publicity for him. But it wasn't undertaken on a whim: he bought and flew the Voisin in Germany the previous year, and had it crated up and shipped out to Australia.
As with any aviation first, there are other claimants for the title of first to fly in Australia. Colin Defries, for example, demonstrated powered flight, but not controlled flight, in Sydney on 9 December 1909: he got up into the air but crashed it. Defries was British; the first Australian to fly (and in an Australian-built aeroplane too) was John Robertson Duigan, later in 1910. David Crotty, a curator at Museum Victoria, discusses some of these issues here; Scienceworks has just opened a new exhibition featuring some artifacts from Defries' aeroplane (its engine was dumped into Port Phillip Bay to avoid import duty!)
I tend to favour Houdini's claims, but that may be because Diggers Rest was my first hometown :) Celebrations are being held there this week -- the Festival of Flight -- including flying displays and (appropriately) magic shows.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.