On Being A Human Cannonball

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

PhotobucketI’d rather be a rocket than a launching pad.  I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.  I’d rather be a human cannonball.  That would be best.  That would be unbelievably exciting.  That would be the way to live.  No safety nets.  No crash helmets.  Blasted through the air.  But first before the launch, there’s some important research.  Research, as Mr. Toad once said, is my life.

Hugo Zacchini may have been the first human cannoball.  Born in Peru on October 20, 1898, he died on the same day in 1975 in San Bernardino.  His wiki is only a stub but it tells the following about him:

*”He was known for being a daredevil and a painter, and for being litigious.”  This is quite a sentence for a two paragraph biography.

*He was an interpreter of as many as 11 languages.

*He received two engineering degrees from the University of Florida, was educated at the Rome Arts Academy, and got a master’s degree at Jamstown (NY) Academy.

*He was the victorious named plaintiff in Zacchini v. Scripps Howard, 433 U.S. 562 (1977), decided by the US Supreme Court:

“Zacchini sued Scripps-Howard, the owner of an Ohio television station, when it filmed, and then broadcast on the evening news, Zacchini’s entire act of being shot out of a cannon at a county fair. The United States Supreme Court sided with Zacchini, ruling 5 to 4 that the publicity rights overrode the First Amendment rights in this case where the entire act was shown on television.”

On the other hand, maybe the first human cannonball “in 1877 at the Royal Aquarium in London, was a girl called “Zazel” (Rossa Matilda Richter, then only 14).”  She too later toured with the PT Barnum Circus.

On the third hand, maybe it was George Layal who in 1875 was the first human cannonball.

The Zacchinis, however, were clearly the prominent, first family of human cannonballing:

The most famous family, the Zacchinis (over 35 members) devoted their entire life to this entertainment starting in 1922, coming to the US in 1929. At times (1939 to 1991) they had as many as 5 traveling shows with 14 cannons.  The Zacchini’s introduced launching two people simultaneously from the same cannon.  Aside from the original five brothers who took flight, eventually two of their daughters also became human bullets (Duina and Egle Victoria).  Hugo was the last of the family members to take flight on August 29, 1991. The Zacchinis also suffered several serious accidents, including one, where two of them collided in mid air having been simultaneously shot from opposing cannons.

Nevermind that none of the dates match other reports.  Or that the places don’t match up.  Forget all of that.  In human cannonballing the facts aren’t as important as the flight.  Not even close.

The human cannonball is a performance in which a person (the “cannonball”) is ejected from a specially designed cannon. The impetus is provided not by gunpowder, but by either a spring or jet of compressed air. In a circus performance, gunpowder may be used to provide visual and auditory effects, but this is unrelated to the launching mechanism.

The human cannonball lands on a horizontal net or inflated bag, the placement of which is determined by classical mechanics. Outdoor performances may also aim at a body of water.”


But what’s it like to be shot out of a cannon?

The propellant of choice today is compressed air. The human projectile climbs into a hollow topless cylinder that slides inside the cannon barrel. Having been lowered to the bottom of the barrel, the cylinder is blasted forward by compressed air at 150-200 pounds per square inch. The cylinder stops at the cannon’s mouth. Its occupant doesn’t.

Being shot from a cannon, like jumping out of an airplane, isn’t that strenuous; it’s the sudden stop at the end that’s a bitch. Elvin Bale, the “Human Space Shuttle,” was experimenting with air bags to break his fall while on tour in 1986. He overshot the airbags and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself. On another occasion two members of the Zacchini family, long famous for its cannonballing exploits, were launched simultaneously from opposite ends of the circus. They collided in mid-air; one Zacchini broke her back.

Historian A.H. Coxe says of 50 human cannonballs more than 30 have been killed, mostly by falling outside the net. Even if you avoid mishaps, many human cannonballs black out in flight, which makes me wonder about long-term brain damage. (OK, I lied when I said it wasn’t strenuous. Sue me.)


But why try to describe it?  It’s 2010.  You can see it.

Fantastic.  Remarkable.  Inspiring.

I’ve been saying for the past week that I aspired to live as a human cannonball.  A human rocket.  Flying.  Fearless.  Astonishing. A shooting star. Defying gravity.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?


simulposted and shot out of the same cannon at The Dream Antilles  


Skip to comment form

    • davidseth on February 6, 2010 at 2:53 am

    That or running away with the next circus that shows up.

    Thanks for reading.

  1. and I’d definitely use the ear muffs.

    • dkmich on February 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Do you have a contact for a realtor or someone who could help us set up housekeeping in Tulum?   We’d like to rent something each winter for the winter.    

  2. being the cannon.  You can be the ammo.  

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