Today, let's talk about showmanship, technology,
and Dolly Shepherd. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
When we put a person on top
of a rocket and fire him into space, we're doing
something with a rich tradition in the Western
world. We're honing an exciting new technology on a
very public stage. That's what the aerial showmen
of the last century did. They took the risks that
had to be taken before flight could become part of
our lives. Modern astronauts may have NASA behind
them, but they're still kin to those early
Take the parachute. Andre Garnerin was first to
jump from a balloon in 1797. He could talk his wife
into making only one jump, but his niece took it up
for a living. From then on women continued
parachuting all through the 19th century.
In 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew,
Buffalo Bill Cody took
his Wild West show to London. Cody had trouble
there. When he put on a blindfold to shoot a
plaster egg from his wife's head, the bullet
creased her scalp. A 16-year-old girl named Dolly
Shepherd came out of the audience to take her
place. To thank her, Cody took her to an aeronaut's
Dolly was given work as a parachutist, and she
quickly became the star of the troupe -- heady
stuff for a young girl. It was dangerous work. She
saw her first fatality when a girl in the troupe
landed on a factory roof and was dragged over the
edge. Others died, and she was almost killed
In a typical jump, two girls would get ready.
They'd open a vent hole in their balloon so it
would start down. Then they'd jump. One day, after
Dolly'd vented the balloon, she found the other
girl's ripcord was jammed. The two had to jump
together from 11,000 feet using Dolly's small
Dolly was paralyzed in the landing. A doctor, who
obviously thought like a barnstormer, subjected her
to a massive electric shock -- hardly accepted
therapy in 1912. But Dolly was lucky. The shock
unlocked her paralysis. While she was getting her
strength back, her mother secretly jumped in her
place. Dolly jumped again, but she began seeing the
face of Death in all this, and she gave it up. Two
years later she joined the war in France as a
She was 96 when she died in 1983. She lived to see
a man on the moon and a rocket circling Saturn. It
was a world that she'd helped make, because
inventing a new technology is only part of bringing
it to the world. Risking its use is another part.
Dolly Shepherd was one of those risk-takers. But
she lived to see women stepping off the face of the
earth in rockets -- just as primitive, just as new
-- as the parachutes she'd used when she stepped
off into the sky, 80 years before.
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 episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1889.
Garnerin's parachute being carried up by a balloon
and then carrying a person back to earth (Images from
the 1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Click on image for
From Harper's New mnonthly
A mid-19th century impression of Garnerin
parachuting from a balloon.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.