Today, three women parachutists. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Molly Sedgwick turned 83 in
2003. To celebrate, she scheduled a parachute
jump. She had a very compelling reason for
doing so. This was not just her birthday,
it was also the ninety-fifth anniversary of an
event in the life of her mother, Elizabeth
Our story begins in 1903 -- same year the Wright
Brothers flew. Buffalo
Bill Cody took his Wild West Show to London
where he had trouble. When he put on a blindfold to
shoot a plaster egg from his wife's head, the
bullet creased her scalp. But then,
sixteen-year-old Shepherd volunteered to take her
The next year, Cody expressed his thanks by taking
Shepherd to Auguste Gaudron's aerial workshop.
After a scant thirty minutes of instruction,
Shepherd, now using the new stage name of Dolly,
began doing exhibition parachute jumps from
Parachuting was already a century old -- a strictly
exhibition game, still primitive and dangerous.
Dolly Shepherd's nerve and flair made her the star
of the show. She saw her first fatality when one
girl landed on a factory roof, and her parachute
dragged her over the edge. Others died, and
Dolly had several close calls.
In a typical jump, two girls got ready. They vented
their balloon so it would start down; and then they
jumped. The event her daughter was celebrating in
2003 was one in which the other girl's parachute
had tangled. With remarkable calm under pressure,
Dolly got the girl out of her harness, told her to
wrap her arms and legs around her own body, and
together they made the first tandem parachute
jump -- from an altitude of 11,000 feet.
They landed hard, and Dolly Shepherd took the brunt
of the impact. She was paralyzed by the blow. A
doctor, who obviously thought like a barnstormer,
tried subjecting her to massive elec-tric shock.
That was not accepted therapy -- then or
now -- but her luck held. By some means, the shock
unlocked her paralysis.
And, while she was recovering, her mother secretly
jumped in her place. When Dolly went back to work,
she jumped for another four years. Then, one day as
she prepared to jump, she thought she heard a voice
saying, "Don't come up again or you'll be killed."
So she gave it up. Two years later she joined the
war in France as a driver mechanic.
She also survived that, and she lived to the age of
96. She lived to see a man on the moon and a rocket
circling Saturn. Dolly Shepherd lived to see women
stepping off the face of the earth in rockets --
just as primitive and new as the parachutes she'd
used, when she stepped off into the sky eighty
Then, her daughter Molly became a third-generation
parachutist. No wonder Molly felt driven to
celebrate her mother's remark-able act of courage
on her own 83rd birthday. A wonderful thing, really
-- this woman asserting her history as we finally
prepare to conquer, not just the sky, but the
reaches of space as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lomax, J., Women of the Air. New York:
Ballantine Books, 1987.
For more on early parachuting, see Episode 1316.
This is a greatly reworked version of Episode 234.
For more on Dolly Shepherd and her daughter, Molly
Article in The Pioneers
Beck Isle Museum article
Article in The Argus Newsletter
The first parachute, that of André Garnerin,
in 1797. Left: the parachute is being carried up by a
balloon. Right: it carrying a person safely back to
earth (Images from the 1897 Encyclopaedia
Click on image for
From Harper's New mnonthly
A mid-nineteenth century impression of Garnerin
parachuting from a balloon.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.