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Thomas Baldwin Jumping in Golden Gate Park

by Susan Saperstein

In January 1887 in Golden Gate Park, Thomas Baldwin set a record with his jump from a hot air balloon in a parachute that he had designed himself. Captain Tom, or Professor Baldwin, as he liked to call himself, had been orphaned at a young age and joined the circus as a balloon acrobat at age 14. He spent the next 10 years performing in balloons at shows and fairs across the country, offering to parachute from a balloon at the rate of a dollar a foot. A thousand feet were eagerly bought for the successful Golden Gate Park jump.

Baldwin made a major contribution to parachute design by creating a harness and by making the parachute flexible so it could be packed. He volunteered his expertise during World War I, when as Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production he supervised the building of all spherical, dirigible and kite balloons. Baldwin built the first government airship in 1908 (U.S. Signal Corps Dirigible Number One) and became known as "The Father of the American Dirigible." He died in 1923 at the age of 68 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.

Information from Hill Aerospace Museum and Pioneers of American Aviation homepages. Photos reprinted with permission, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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