John Goodman Household: Africa’s First Flier November 2, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Beach has now spent a year looking at legends and stories about early pre-Wrightian fliers. Essentially they fall into three categories. The Tower Jumpers, 3000 BC to 1500 AD: lunatics who jumped from heights, hoped for the best and typically died. The Renaissance Gliders, 1500-1800 AD: men who sketched out flying contraptions but for the most part sensibly did not try them out. The Modern Fliers, 1800-1903: pilots who planned and often allegedly flew aircraft in the decades before the Wright Brothers. Beach has noticed two things about these Jumpers, Gliders and Fliers: first, there are a lot more than most of our text books tell us (in fact, there is a study here for someone); and, second, most of what is written about them is complete cobblers (and that is the real story).
Enter John Goodman Household. JGH is a recent South African discovery of Beach’s thanks to Neville I., and we at strangehistory have been trying to get everything we can on him in the days since Neville wrote in.
The story goes like this. In the 1870s, the date is uncertain, John Goodman Household, took flight from a height close to his house. We are not certain where he took flight other than in Kwa-Zulu province close to Curry’s Post: locals have specific claims and counter claims. We do not know what his vehicle was like: though it was almost certainly a glider rather than a plane (as such George Cayley got there first, but don’t say that too loudly).
We do not know how many times JGH flew: though the accounts passed down to us talk of two or three jumps before he broke his leg while passing over a tree. Early aeronauts often finish badly, either because they didn’t know how to fly properly or because, when myth intervenes, God (or the gods) need mortals to be punished for their arrogance in leaving the ground.
Indeed, the only other thing known is that Household’s mother demanded, after his accident, that her son stop his gadding about and that he use his legs as God had required. Household did so. His filial obedience is used to explain why his flying machine was burnt and why all his plans subsequently disappeared. Historians should come up with a name for such convenient explanations.
Oh and there is another thing. We don’t have the slightest idea whether any of this happened! James Swinnich in an excellent article, which is easily accessible in pdf form, has gathered together all the evidence he can and he has found pitifully, pitifully little: needless to say a reflection on the state of the sources rather than on JS.
There are newspaper stories from the 1950s and then rumours of newspaper stories from the 1920s. But even if we are generous and assume that those 1920s newspaper stories exist and that John Goodman Household flew near his house in the 1870s that is still forty and more likely fifty or even sixty years to bridge. If Beachcombing came across this evidence for the classical or the medieval world he would be very chary before picking it up.
Yes, we are just within living memory: Beachcombing has ‘memories’ of the Second World War passed down to him by his grandparents that are essentially in this bracket. But Beachcombing wouldn’t like to write a book using his ‘memories’ of convoys being bombed in the Med. Then what if the first evidence are newspapers from the 1950s? That could be as much as eighty years and here we are slipping out of living memory.
This brings us to a Beachcombian obsession in relation to such historical facts/myths. Can there be smoke without fire? Can a legend come out of nothing or must there be some kind of seed or flame?
Beach used to be an optimist here: aged twenty he would have said that there has to be something to it. Household had at least built a flying contraption.
Now a few decades later he’d say that it could all come down to a giggle in a bar in Lesotho in 1875: perhaps a man building a craft out of matchsticks on his table while someone else ordered the drinks. Myth is an ‘arrant whore’ and she goes to bed with the strangest people.
Certainly the details that come down to us are suspicious: the pious mother and the obedient son sound very nineteenth-century colonial.
Can anyone come to the rescue of Household and his glider?: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
George T very kindly sends in this reference to JGH, South Africa’s legendary (in every sense) first flier. It is in Lawrence Green’s last book When the Journey’s Over, chapter ten. Here follows the relevant extract. As George writes: I am not sure he adds much to the story but does quote a supposed eyewitness. ‘South Africa’s first airman is more of a legend than a reality. His name was Goodman Household, he was a Natal farmer and – if the story is true – he left the earth in a glider years before Lilienthal of Germany. Here I must point out that the story of air pioneering has been confused by patriots of the various nations concerned and historical accuracy has suffered in the process. There are many South Africans who like to believe that Household took to the air in the seventies of last century. Frenchmen declare that Clement Ader flew a steam propelled monoplane successfully in 1890; only one hundred and sixty feet, to be sure, but over level ground with daylight under the wheels. Some of the leading authorities on aeronautics have supported Ader’s claim. Thirteen years later came the Wright brothers, regarded by Americans as the first men to fly power-driven aircraft. I should also mention an early British glider called the Bat, designed and flown successfully in 1895 by a Clydeside shipbuilder named Percy Pilcher. He crashed and was killed four years later. Goodman Household certainly built a glider but I doubt very much whether he flew it. This, after a century, is a mystery that will never be solved. ‘The family farm was in the Karkloof district of Natal. There young Household started his aviation research by shooting vultures and other birds, weighing them, measuring the wings and calculating the wingspan needed to carry his own weight. His parents encouraged their inventive son when he designed a mechanical sawmill that replaced several native labourers; but they strongly disapproved of his interest in flying. ‘Crazy and un-Christian’, they said. So the dedicated Goodman went on with his experiments secretly. Dr Colenso, Bishop of Natal, checked his mathematical calculations. After ten years of research Goodman Household started building his glider. According to one account he used steel tubes and silk imported from Switzerland. Apparently he made an error in the wing loading and the first glider failed to lift him. The second glider seems to have had a bamboo frame covered with paper or oiled silk. It had enormous wings. Household made a seat for himself like a swing, suspended below the wings by four ropes. He hoped to control the glider by tilting his seat in various directions; surely the most precarious control system ever planned. Viewed from any angle, I find the legend of Household’s pioneer flight incredible. It becomes all the more dubious when you learn that Household decided to fly by night to avoid distressing his parents. He and his Zulus are supposed to have carried the glider up a hillside near the homestead and launched it in total darkness. Details of the flight vary widely. One account says that Household ‘threw himself from a high cliff and landed safely near a yellow-wood tree’. The tree has been pointed out to credulous visitors as clear proof of Household’s feat. It stood about five hundred yards from the launching site on a krantz. Another version has Household running down a slope until he was able to level out, climb a little and fly triumphantly over the tall gum trees in the valley. He tried to land on rising ground but crashed in a dam and hurt his ankle. After this adventure his mother made him promise that he would never fly again. The glider went into the farmhouse loft; and no doubt the strange contraption was inspected by many visitors who helped to embroider and spread the legend. Goodman Household died in 1906 and it has been stated that he left instructions in his will that the glider and all his plans and calculations should be destroyed. Certainly nothing has been found. Natal newspapers have been publishing the story at intervals ever since Household died; but the so-called eye-witnesses are at variance and no authentic record has ever been discovered. Even the year of Household’s experiment has not been fixed; some said 1871, others 1875. A native herdsman employed by a Mr Jack Logan claimed to have been present and pointed out ‘the exact spot’. The herdsman recalled many failures before the dramatic night when Household flew. ‘He leapt into the wind and was carried away like a bird about eight feet from the ground,’ declared the herdsman. ‘He landed in a mealie-field eight hundred yards from the start.’ The scene of Household’s adventure has been marked by the Historical Monuments Commission and the vague reports have been officially recorded. But I cannot imagine any serious historian being deeply impressed by the century old Household legend. Goodman Household was a dreamer, an inventor, a clever pioneer aircraft designer – but not the first glider pilot.’ Thanks George!