This video captures a major turning point both in the history of civilization and in the life of Harry Houdini. It's the first International Aviation Meet, held in Reims, France in 1909. (Don't worry if you don't understand French - the beauty and grace of the flying machines is captivating!)
Harry the Daredevil was dying to fly and in those days the place to be for flying was Europe.
Coming just one month after Louis Blériot had flown his plane across the English Channel, it was the social event of the new century. An estimated half-million spectators attended, including heads of state, industrial tycoons, sports celebrities, military officials - and Harry Houdini, then the most famous performer in the world.
Curiously, the only aviators NOT at Reims were the Wright Brothers. They had done their thing in 1903, but at that time they were NOT considered the first to fly an airplane. Presumably because they wanted to protect commercial rights to their patent for a flying machine, the Wright Brothers failed to publish any photos of their historic Kitty Hawk flight until 1908. Indeed, Scientific American rejected an article reporting their flight as "too far-fetched." First word of the Wrights' achievement appeared in a fortnightly beekeeper's journal! As late as 1906, the Paris edition of the New York Herald ran an editorial on the Wright Brothers under the headline: "Flyers or Liars?"
In those early days, credit for the first flight frequently went to a friend of Harry's, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a resident of France whose name today adorns airports all over Brazil, his home country. Harry met Santos-Dumont in Paris and they attended the Reims Air Meet together.
In earlier posts we've recounted Houdini's close association with the first aviators, notably with military fliers who became the first to engage in aerial combat. It all started at Reims.
Harry bought his Voisin after seeing it fly at Reims. He then took it to Germany, where he was appearing in Hamburg and Essen. He needed a place to practice flying so, according to a remarkable article in The Aero, he applied for help to the German Ministry of War.
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The German military was at a crucial juncture in its ideas about aerial warfare. One faction favored airships, not airplanes - the Zeppelin, for example, a proven, reliable dirigible that was useful for reconnaissance. But they feared airplanes, especially since those were the new specialty of their traditional enemies, the French: Voisin, Blériot and Santos-Dumont all being pioneers of the nascent French air industry.
So the German Ministry of War made Houdini an offer he couldn't refuse: in return for letting him use their Hamburg-Wandebeck parade grounds for hangaring and practice flying, Harry would train the resident Hussar regiment to fly. We have written at some length about these Hussars, cavalry officers many of whom went on to become aerial aces of World War One and Two.
Houdini's Voisin was one of the very first airplanes ever to fly in Germany. As far as we can determine it was the first ever connected to the German military. In this sense, Houdini can be considered the father of the German air forces. When Germany went to war against the rest of the world in 1914, Houdini was ashamed of this, and, according to the biographers, tried to destroy any record of his work with the German military.
According to The Aero, Houdini's success in Hamburg extended to Essen, where he appears also to have trained a man named Schultz to fly. Via The Aero Houdini announced to the world that his old friends at the Krupp munitions factories were about to start building airplanes.
Indeed, Germany used Houdini's Voisin and other French planes as models and by 1910 had quickly reverse-engineered what became a thriving - and deadly - military aircraft industry.