The Man Who Tightroped Niagara Falls on Stilts


Long before Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire—decades, in fact, before Nik’s grandfather, Karl, even founded the Flying Wallendas—there was Blondin.

Born Jean Francois Gravelet, the self-styled Charles Blondin knew from an early age that tightrope walking was his calling. Having already conquered Europe as “The Boy Wonder,” he set his sights on the U.S. in the 1850s.

For his first stunt, Blondin declared that he would cross the gorge at Niagara Falls on June 30, 1859. He carried out the task with ease, taking a mere 23 minutes for the round trip, including a stop on his way back across to snap a few pictures.

While getting across alive would be enough for most people, Blondin was compelled to make the trip again and again, adding new props and tricks to increase the level of difficulty. He crossed again on July 4, less than a week after his first journey. This time, he made it halfway across before he lay down on the cable, flipped over, and finished the trip backward. Just in case the crowd wasn’t impressed, he made the return trip wearing a sack over his head and body.


On July 14, he stopped in the center of the rope and held out his hat. From the Maid of the Mist boat below, “Captain Travis” produced a pistol and fired a shot at Blondin. Moments later, the daredevil lowered his hat down to the boat to show the bullet hole in its rim. On the way back, Blondin donned a monkey suit and traipsed across with a wheelbarrow. He may have felt the need to up his game since former President Millard Fillmore was watching.

He crossed doing flips and somersaults. He crossed with his manager clinging to his back. He crossed while shackled. He crossed on stilts. He crossed carrying a table and a chair, and though the chair toppled over the edge, Blondin remained upright. He sat down on the cable to enjoy a slice of cake and some champagne.


On another momentous occasion, Blondin crossed carrying an iron stove. When got to the midpoint, he balanced the stove on the wire, then donned a chef’s hat, whipped out a couple of eggs, and cooked an omelet. But there was more—he lowered the snack down to the Maid of the Mist, where tourists no doubt scrambled to snatch the ultimate souvenir.

Not everyone was impressed with Blondin’s feats, though. Mark Twain once referred to him as “that adventurous ass.”

Unlike other daredevils that ended up paying the ultimate price for their showmanship, Blondin survived all of his attempts. When he died at the age of 72, it wasn’t a daring stunt that did him in—it was diabetes.

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Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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