A human cannonball is an act in which a person is launched from a cannon into the air. The person acts as a cannonball being launched from the breech of a traditional cannon, but in the case of a human cannonball, no gunpowder is used.
A Canadian, the Great Farini, invented a device in the late-19th century for launching human beings high into the air. It was tried a few times in the 1870s, before the first person, George Loyal, was launched from it in 1875. Two years later, in 1877, a 14-year-old acrobat, Rosa Richter, was launched from one of Farini’s cannons. She was introduced as Zazel, and was for all intents and purposes, the first human cannonball. Zazel went on to tour with P.T. Barnum, and the human cannonball act remained popular for the next two decades, until interest in it began to wane.
Farini’s early cannon made use of rubber springs to launch human cannonballs into the air, and the distances they could reach were fairly limited. In the 1920s, however, a number of Europeans made substantial improvements on Farini’s early design. Most notably, Ildebrando Zacchini invented a new cannon which used compressed air to launch a human cannonball. This new cannon also used firecrackers and smoke to make the cannon look more like its traditional namesake, and add an extra layer of excitement to the act.
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The Zacchinis joined the Ringling Brothers’ Circus and toured with them for a decade before striking out on their own. During this time they popularized the human cannonball once more, and it became a core stunt of many of the great circus acts. The Zacchinis held the record for the longest distance launched from a cannon for decades, until they were finally upstaged by David Smith Sr. in 1995, who was launched more than 180 feet (55m) in New Jersey. In 1998 David Smith Sr. and his son, David Smith Jr., both competed to break the father’s record. David Smith Sr. broke his previous record, with a launch of nearly 186 feet (56.64m), while his son traveled more than 181 feet (55.19m).
Although the human cannonball act is not nearly as dangerous as many people assume, since the people are not, of course, being launched with gunpowder, it is nonetheless incredibly dangerous. Launching a person out of an actual gunpowder cannon would have about a one-hundred percent mortality rate, but the air cannon comes fairly close over the lifetime of most human cannonballs. It is estimated that of the roughly fifty human cannonballs who have engaged extensively in the act since its conception, around thirty have died. Nearly all were killed by the cannon being poorly aimed, or heavy winds, resulting in them landing outside of the safety net, and being killed by the impact.