Early aeroplane magic lantern slide

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Technological progress over the last hundred years is difficult to grasp without specific marker points. A few of us (not me) have now lived through it, thanks to medical interventions, so can compare ‘then’, their childhood, with ‘now’. But for most of us, it’s a bit of blur. It feels as if the rate of progress is accelerating, as every new electronic device has an extra feature that makes it different from the previous one and, for some, that makes it a ‘must-have’. In my case, it’s a ‘might-have but probably won’t’ when it’s second hand and cheap on Ebay.

The point of today’s post is that early photographs (and high resolution magic lantern slides in particular) enable us to step back from the blurry continuum of progress and look at a moment in time when the subject captured was an innovation, the cutting edge (what does that actually mean?), the latest technological thingy that made people gasp. What was the last piece of technology that made you gasp? For me, it was a couple of years ago when my son demonstrated virtual reality with a cardboard headset and his smart phone. I pointed out to him that stunningly realistic 3D photos have been around since the 1860s. He wasn’t impressed.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, today’s lantern slide is from 1911 and shows the rich man’s technological toy of the day, an early aeroplane. I remember my father-in-law telling me of a biplane landing in a field near his home around this time and the shock that it caused to all who saw it. It must have been incredible to see something heavier than air, in the air. It’s a bit like my view of mobile phones ….. there’s no visible wires, so they must work by magic.

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In the early 1900s, a handful of inventors, entrepreneurs and adventurers were developing flying machines through a process of trial and error, the latter leading to many accidents and deaths. Their machines were made of canvas, wood and string, with very primitive engines. The pilots were brave men.

This photograph is interesting for a number of reasons. It was taken by Graystone Bird, one of the UK’s finest, professional, Victorian / Edwardian photographers. The pilot is Samuel Franklin Cody (not Buffalo Bill, also called Cody), a cowboy showman turned aeronaut flying his ‘Cathedral’ biplane and the location is Brooklands, the world famous banked racing circuit at the epicentre of early motor racing, which can be seen at the bottom of the slide. All in all, this is a truly remarkable photograph.

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