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When Harry Houdini arrived in Melbourne with his flying machine

Harry Houdini's flight in Melbourne 1910
Harry Houdini's flight in Melbourne 1910

The first successful aviator in Australia was a Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. Aircrafts were in its infancy and flying was still a life and death adventure, which attracted the world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini to the thrill of flying an aircraft. Just six years before, on December 17, 1903, two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk, a powered aircraft, the duo invented. At 7 ‘o’ clock in the morning on 18 March 1910, Harry Houdini made the first powered, controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft in Australia at Plumpton Dam, Diggers Rest, 33km north west from Melbourne CBD.

36-year-old Houdini arrived in Melbourne on 6th February 1910, accompanied by his wife of sixteen years, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess Houdini. She was also his stage assistant. She was the only one who knew all his secrets about his performances. Houdini never preferred to call himself a magician as magicians were too common everywhere. “If I might be allowed to coin a word, I would call myself an escapologist,” he once said. Houdini’s first program was at New Opera house in Melbourne on 7th February 1910. He was part of a long program of songs, dances and comedy sketches. He performed his trunk substitution fete, full tied, escaping from a sack, which was put in a trunk that was nailed and sealed. After which he performed straitjacket escape. On 16th February, as advertised, Houdini dived into Yarra River from the Queensbridge in the city, padlocked and chained, only to resurface holding the chains in one hand and smiling. A large crowd of around 20,000 witnessed the event.

Harry Houdini's flight in Melbourne 1910
Harry Houdini’s flight in Melbourne 1910

Houdini had brought with him from Germany a Voisin flying machine. Before coming to Melbourne, Houdini without assistance, tried the machine at Hamburg-Wandsbeck, in Germany, in an 18 minutes flight and went to a height of 80 feet. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for 25,000 francs and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac.  The flying machine was a standard Voisin with a 60 Hp E.N.U Engine. Houdini shipped it to Australia in February 1910 and stored the plane in a tent at Diggers Rest. He waited nearly a month for a wind free day and on 18th March 1910, he made three short flights.

The Argus reported Houdini’s aviation endeavours in Australia as follows:

The Voisin bi plane was purchased by Mr. Houdini from Sanchez Bess and Eduardo Bello, aviators who have flown this machine in France for a continuous period of lhr and 20miin. The bi-plane is shaped roughly like a huge bird, the larger plane being something like a box-kite 33ft long by about 6ft broad, and the name height. The top of the plane stands, on its wheels, about 121t above the ground. The smaller, or tailplane is 6ft or 7ft square, and in it the rudder is fixed. The length from the small elevating planes in front to the end of the tail is equal to the width of the machine. It stands on four wheels, with a guard-wheel high in front to minimise damage in case of a “dive.” The hi-plane is driven by an 80 hp petrol motor, weighing 2401b, and a steel-shafted aluminium propeller 8ft in length, which at full speed performs 1200 revolutions per minute. The rudder and elevating planes are controlled by a wheel having two motions back and forth for the planes and from side to side for the rudder. The engine is controlled by a small clutch at the side of the pilot’s seat. The plain is less complex than the Wright machine: “but,” said Mr. Houdini yesterday, “when you’ve learned to handle the Wright you can do more with it than with mine.” The Voisin plane weighs in itself 1200lb, and, with Mr. Houdini mounted, 1350lb

“The machine bears some signs of old damage, the petrol cylinder being badly dinted where Mr. Houdini fell while experimenting in Germany. The wheel was cut “to mince-meat” by the whirling blades of the propeller, a piece of the wheel struck the cylinder. Mr. Houdini has only made a few short flights. He is, in his own words, “only a fledgling”—that is to say, he has been instructed in the handling of the machine, and he has flown, but he needs practice. For almost a month past he has motored daily to the flying-field, but only two or three times has the weather allowed even an attempt at rising to be made

Why so quiet about it?” Mr. Houdini laughed. “Performances first,” he said. “Do you remember how Wilbur Wright put it? ‘We are the birdmen, and the bird which talks best, and flies worst is the parrot.’ I wouldn’t like Wilbur Wright to class me as a parrot.”

Day after day Mr. Houdini has met with weather that might deter an experienced aviator. Brussac, his engineer, who lives with the Voisin and loves it like an only child, curses in fluent French (for he has no English) this “country of great winds.”

Houdini was a man of contradictions. He has given lectures around America on superstitions and unsubstantiated beliefs, but he was himself superstitious and hated and avoided number 13 as much as he could. He scoffed at locks and proved himself fearless, yet he double locked his home door and fastened with a chain. He could not take any jokes on his magic skills. He was too absent minded. He could remember thousands of details during his performances but would walk out of a restaurant forgetting to pay. He was too absent minded to drive an automobile without a chauffeur, but he could fly because flying absorbed him.

Harry Houdini diving into Yarra River
Harry Houdini diving into Yarra River

In 2010 on the one-hundred-year anniversary of his flight, a monument was erected in Diggers Rest dedicated to the flight. It is debatable whether Houdini was the first man to fly powered aircraft in Australia. Aviation experts credit, trained pilot and Londoner, Colin Defies who on December 9, 1909 took off at Victoria Park Racecourse in Sydney, in a Wilbur Wright aeroplane to be the first man to fly an aircraft in Australia. But Houdini was a good publicist and a performer, so his try at fame still remains in Australian record books.


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