Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Chester Melvin Vaniman

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1908. Flew 150m at Issy on 12th December 1908.

Chester Melvin Vaniman (1866-1912) was an American photographer, adventurer and businessman who specialized in panoramic images taken from heights.

Born to a farming family in Virden, Illinois, he was the eldest of four sons, and attended Valparaiso University in Indiana and Chicago. His nickname was the "Acrobatic Photographer." He shot images from hot air balloons, ships masts, tall buildings and even a home-made 30 meter pole. He was a famous aviator and balloonist. He scaled buildings, hung from self-made slings, and scaled dangerous heights to capture his unique images.

Vaniman's photographic career began in Hawaii in 1901 and ended some time in 1904. He spent over a year photographing Australia and New Zealand on behalf of the Oceanic Steamship Company, creating promotional images for the company. During this time the New Zealand Government also commissioned some panoramic images.

Beginning in 1903 he spent over a year photographing Sydney and the surrounding areas. It was during this time that he created his best known work, the panorama of Sydney, shot from a hot air balloon he had specially imported from the United States.

He constructed his own "swing-lens" cameras to accomplish the capture of full 360×180 degree panoramic images.

Vaniman is best known for his images of Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

Around 1904 he gave up photography and took up exploration. This included attempts at the North Pole and the Trans-Atlantic crossing - both attempted in an airship organised by Walter Wellman. The first attempt to cross the Atlantic was in 1910 on airship named America. Anticipating a five day crossing, the airship's motor failed after 38 hours, leaving it adrift until it was rescued two days later by the Trent, a passing Royal Mail steamship.

Vaniman lost his life during his second attempt at a trans-Atlantic airship crossing when his airship, the Akron, exploded off the New Jersey shore on July 2, 1912. Filled with 11,300 cubic meters of Hydrogen gas, his was the first American airship that could compare to the better known European manufactured models. Vaniman and his crew of four were killed when the airship exploded in front of the gathered crowd near Atlantic City, and gondola plunged 750 meters into an inlet.

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