Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 24, 1837 --- Poor Mr. Cocking

Several thousand people are looking on as Robert Cocking, a 61-year old painter and amateur aeronaut, lifts off from London's Vauxhall Gardens to test his homemade parachute. He and his contraption are suspended beneath the giant Nassau balloon. The parachute is described as being "not very unlike an umbrella turned upside down," an inverted cone with a wicker basket attached for Mr. Cocking. The frame, 107' in circumference, is made of tin and it is covered in the finest Irish linen. Cocking's theories had "engrossed very nearly all his attention" for years.

As the great balloon rises, his plan is to get up to at least 8000 feet before releasing himself. However, the weight of his apparatus slows the balloon's ascent. The balloonists, Spencer and Green, jettison much of their ballast in a bid to rise higher. The balloon drifts over South London where it vanishes into a bank of clouds making it unsafe to drop any more ballast for fear of what's below. Finally, over Greenwich and only a mile up, the balloonists advise Cocking they can get no higher. From his basket, Cocking yells, "Well, now I think I shall leave you. Good night, Spencer. Good night, Green." With that, he severs the tether.

The balloon, freed of the weight, shot up like a skyrocket. Sadly, Cocking goes the other direction at much the same pace. In Norwood, a man described the chute's descent as like a stone through a vacuum. With a tremendous crash, Cocking's basket and chute slam into the ground at a farm near Lee. A shepherd is first to reach him. Cocking has been spilled from the basket, his head badly cut, his wig tossed some distance away. A few groans are the only brief sign of life. Carried by cart to the Tiger's Head Inn, Cocking soon died of his injuries.

At the inquest, Mr. Gye -the operator at Vauxhall - said Cocking had been extremely confident in his machine and "exhibited no apparent want of nerve." A Professor Airey testified that the chute was "insufficient to support the individual within the limits of velocity required by nature for the preservation of life." The coroner's jury placed no blame, ruling that Cocking's death could be attributed to "misfortune."

The only criticism was directed at the innkeeper who had charged sixpence to see the mangled body; the coroner found the publican's ghoulish scheme "deserving of peculiar censure and deprecation."

Mr. Cocking's parachute (courtesy of

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