Houdini over Australia

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.

Diggers' Rest,
near Melbourne,

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.

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.
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.

This film shows Houdini on a later flight over Sydney, probably from Rosehill Racecourse. (My first YouTube upload; I took it from Hargrave.) After leaving Australia, he never flew again.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Houdini over Australia

  1. And a couple of footnotey things - David Crotty was also Curator at the RAAF Museum before joining Scienceworks, and Museum Victoria (which is the organisation SW comes within) have a modern replica of Duigan's aircraft on show in the main Melbourne museum, and the original in store.

    Ian Debenham, the Transport Curator of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, discussed the claims (and some of the political posturing behind them) for us in Flightpath V21N1 last year.

  2. Good question! I don't know, as the replica is actually an airworthy one, and therefore has a number of variations that make flying it more viable, but less accurate. it would be better being occasionally demonstrated, which is what it was built for. (Privately, then donated.) The original will be very delicate and as a century-old light wood and fabric structure, temperature and humidity would be significant (if normal) display issues. Certainly suspending it hung behind glass in the museum's foyer (as the replica is, and shown on my blog - pluglet, as above!) would be A Bad Idea.

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