How Daredevils Work

By: Charles W. Bryant
Wing walker.
Extreme Sports Image Gallery Wing walkers came into prominence in the 1920s. See more pictures of extreme sports.
Archive Holdings, Inc./Getty Images

Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, being shot from a cannon, walking on a tightrope high above a city street -- no one can dispute that daredevils captivate the public. From biplane wing walkers to Evel Knievel to the thick-headed morons of "Jackass" -- daredevils do what it takes to get attention.

So what makes a daredevil, and why do we watch? Some might say that any bungee jumper or mountain climber is a daredevil. Others might argue for NASCAR driver­s or Hollywood stuntmen. Aviators consider Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh daredevils for flying nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean.


­The truth is, there's no set definition for the term, but one thing all daredevils have in common is that they put their life on the line -- often with a high degree of recklessness. Viewers tune in to daredevil television specials for the chance to see a spectacular crash as much as a riveting stunt. Or maybe we watch to see someone attempt something we'd never try. No one knows for sure why these people risk their lives to thrill others.

In this article, we'll look the history of these people who risk death for a brief moment in the limelight. We'll also look at some of the most famous daredevils and what they've done to earn this distinction.


Daredevil History

Human cannonball.
A human cannonball flies through the air after being fired from a cannon.
Hulton Collection/Getty Images

It's not clear why the first daredevils did what they did. With little publicity and no such thing as television or radio, daredevil pioneers risked their lives for small live audiences. Some might argue that they were simply adrenaline junkies, much like today's extreme sportsmen. Some of the early daredevils might be viewed as inventors and experimenters. Frenchman Jacques Garnerin experimented with the world's first parachute jump with a non-rigid frame in 1797. He graduated from jumping from trees and sending animals out as test jumpers to eventually jumping himself from a hot air balloon at 3,200 feet. His experimentation with the non-rigid frame led to skydiving as we know it today.

Barnstormers, daredevil pilots who performed aerial stunt shows, flew into the scene after World War I. At the time, these shows were the most sought-out form of entertainment. Mostly fighter pilots, these early risk takers took their biplanes on death-defying rolls and tumbles in the unregulated skies -- all in the name of showmanship. Aviation legend and national hero Charles Lindbergh learned his flying skills as a barnstormer and even performed parachute and wing walking stunts.



Wing walkers climbed from the plane's cockpit to do handstands and hang from trapezes. Early wing walker and Army pilot Ormer Locklear first climbed from his cockpit to fix a broken radiator in mid-air. His commanding officers found that Ormer's stunts boosted morale, and they surprisingly encouraged him to keep up his antics. After an honorable discharge, Locklear became a professional wing walker, to the delight of aerial show fans everywhere. He would hang from a ladder by his teeth and walk from plane to plane in midair -- sometimes earning as much as $3,000 for an appearance.

Unfortunately, like many wing walkers, Locklear was killed while performing a stunt. The U.S. government outlawed wing walking below 1,500 feet in 1936, basically rendering the practice obsolete -- no one could see anything from the ground at that distance.

Human cannonballs are certainly among the early daredevils. The first human to be used as a projectile was "Lulu" in 1871. This British man dressed in drag and was sent skyward by a catapult at the London Music Hall. The first actual cannon was used by circus pioneer P.T. Barnum in 1880. Another Brit, a real woman named Zazel, stunned audiences when she climbed into the cannon and was shot into a safety net. Barnum used coiled springs to propel her along with a fake bang and puff of smoke thanks to well-timed firecrackers. These days, the springs have been replaced by a compressed air cannon -- but they still use a fake bang to give the audience a thrill. Unfortunately, Zazel broke her back while performing and retired from the show.

High-wire walkers came onto the daredevil scene as a circus act, but later left the tent in search of greater heights. In tightrope walking, a balance bar is typically used to slowly walk along a taut half-inch metal cable. Daredevil Philippe Petit gained notoriety in 1974 by walking the span between New York's Twin Towers of the recently completed World Trade Center. He actually walked the wire eight times in succession, stopped to kneel and salute and even laid down on the thin cable at one point. The walk was carefully planned and completely illegal. After a lot of coaxing, officers on the scene were finally able to get Petit off the wire and into custody. As a result of the notoriety he received, the charges were dropped if he agreed to a free performance for the children of New York, to which he obliged.

In the next section, we'll climb into a barrel and go over Niagara Falls


Niagara Falls

Tight rope walker.
French acrobat and tightrope-walker "The Great Blondin" crossing Niagara on a tightrope.
William England/Stringer/Getty Images

Perhaps no other place on Earth has seen more daredevil acts than the falls at Niagara -- so much so that the falls' tourist center has an exhibit dedicated to the history of the daredevil stunts performed there. The Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side is the preferred location due to its lack of rocks below. At a height of 170 feet, daredevils truly risk their lives when they take the plunge.

Long before anyone went over the falls in a barrel, daredevils performed tightrope acts high above the churning waters below. One of the most noteworthy of these early daredevils was "The Great Blondin." Blondin, aka Jean Francois Gravelot, made his first journey across the Niagara River in 1859 -- along a 1,100-foot tightrope that connected the United States and Canada. It took about 20 minutes and a 40-pound balancing pole that spanned 30 feet. Blondin completed eight more walks, adding everything from a wheelbarrow to his manager on his back. Blondin would usually just "pass the hat" to collect money for his derring-do.


The Great Blondin's chief daredevil rival was "The Great Farini," or William Leonard Hunt. Hunt was actually among the crowd that watched Blondin complete his first tightrope walk across the river. Seeing this feat inspired him enough to quit his job and pursue his own daredevil dreams. While Blondin was lacking in the business department, Farini was a smart young performer who mass-marketed his events and demanded top dollar to perform. Blondin was the more polished performer, but Farini was far stronger, enabling him to add a unique twist to his first attempt across the falls. In 1860, The Great Farini set off across the falls with a second rope strapped to his back. At the midpoint of the journey, Farini used the second rope to lower himself 200 feet to the deck of the Maid of the Mist tour boat. After a quick glass of wine, he then climbed back up and resumed his walk with baskets on his feet. Blondin and Farini engaged in a back-and-forth display of one-upmanship, each trying to top the other's stunts. When Blondin did a headstand, Farini did a handstand. When Blondin carried a stove out onto the wire and cooked an omelet, Farini lugged out a washtub and scrubbed handkerchiefs.

Annie Taylor.
Wax figure of Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, sitting in a barrel, in the Niagara Falls Museum.
Yale Joel/Stringer/Getty Images


In 1901, a 63-year-old retired school teacher named Annie Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The fame and fortune of other famous daredevils prompted the stunt. With her pet cat, pillows for padding and an anvil in the base to keep her upright, Taylor floated over the edge and lived to tell about it. It took 10 years for a man to attempt the stunt. Since then, 16 different daredevils have made the trip over the falls, 11 of which lived through it. In 2003, Kirk Jones became the first person to intentionally go over the edge with nothing but the clothes on his back. Somehow, Jones survived the plunge with only minor rib injuries. If you want to find out more about the physics behind the barrel plunge, you can read it in How Going Over Niagara Works.

In the next section, we'll rev up our engines for the most famous of all daredevils, Robert "Evel" Knievel.


Evel Knievel

Evel Knieval.
American stunt performer Evel Knieval pulls a 'wheelie' with his motorcycle.
Hulton Archive/Staff/Getty Images

Born in 1938 in Butte, Mont., to Ann and Chase Knievel, Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel was perhaps the greatest daredevil in history. Even though his stunts weren't always successful, he was a master performer and marketing genius, turning his motorcycle jumps into a cottage industry.

As a teen, young Bobby always seemed to find himself in trouble. In fact, his troublesome ways are what led to his famous moniker. After getting arrested for recklessly driving his motorcycle, he was sitting in a jail cell across from one William "Awful" Knofel. The name stuck with Bobby and he decided that "Evil" Knievel would be his stage name. He changed the "I" in Evil to an "E" simply because he thought it looked better [source: U.S. Army.


After holding various jobs ranging from insurance salesman to big-game hunting guide, Knievel opened a Honda motorcycle dealership in Washington state, but failed to generate enough income to support his family. Recalling a car stunt show he'd seen as a child, he decided to stage his own motorcycle stunt show. Acting as his own press agent, ticket salesman, promoter and emcee, his first professional jump was 20 feet over boxes of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. He came up short and landed on the rattlesnakes to the delight of the audience. Believing he was on to something, he convinced a Norton motorcycle distributor to sponsor his show, and a legend was born.

Staging shows mainly in southern California, Evel Knievel soon developed a following that came in droves to see him attempt to jump everything from parked cars to live animals. The jump that really catapulted him to national fame was over the fountain at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. At a distance of 151 feet, it was the longest jump he'd ever attempted. More than 15,000 watched live, with several million at home in front of their TV sets. What happened at Caesar's both thrilled and horrified the viewing audience. Knievel cleared the fountains, but landed badly and tumbled over the handlebars. He continued to tumble like a stuffed dummy, finally coming to rest in the adjacent Dunes parking lot. He suffered multiple injuries and spent 29 days in the hospital.

His most famous debacle came when he attempted to jump Snake River Canyon in Idaho strapped into a jet-powered rocket cycle. After a successful take-off, his X-2 Skycycle had just cleared the canyon when the parachute prematurely deployed. This carried the rocket back into the canyon where it floated to the ground, not far from the river. He escaped this feat with a couple of minor injuries and some egg on his face.

Known as much for his spectacular crashes as his successful jumps, Knievel was a skilled promoter and found great success through his line of Evel Knievel toys, television specials and merchandising. He holds the record for the most broken bones and had so many metal plates in his body that he even began breaking those. Knievel made his final jump at Miami-Hollywood Speedway in 1981. His son Robbie has since gone on to break all of his father's motorcycle jump records.

Sadly, Evel passed away in 2007 from complications from diabetes and an incurable lung condition. His legend has inspired pop songs, movies, documentaries, a rock-opera and an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.

In the next section, we'll take a look at the current crop of modern daredevils.



Modern Daredevils

Felix Baumgartner.
Austrian extreme sky diver Felix Baumgartner during a practice flight above England.
AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

Today's daredevils are a far cry from the turn-of-the-century pioneers. Some are extreme athletes that push the limits of the human endurance; others are average people who treat their bodies like punching bags.

If you've paid attention to the news, you've probably heard of the real "Spiderman." Frenchman Alain Roberts is the man behind this famous nickname. He's earned fame as an urban free-climber, scaling skyscrapers with his bare hands and no safety measures in place. He climbed his first building in Chicago in 1994 and soon realized he could earn a living by doing so. To date, Roberts has scaled more than 70 skyscrapers, often raising large sums of money for charity from sponsors and advertisers. In the early days, "Spiderman" would get arrested for his unauthorized ascents, but as his star rose, companies began seeking him out to climb their tall buildings.



Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian daredevil skydiver and BASE jumper currently holds quite a few world records. He broke his own record for tallest BASE jump by leaping from a height of 1,670 feet at the 101 Tower in Taipei, Taiwan. He also owns the lowest BASE jump record for his 95-foot fall from the outstretched right hand of the Christ Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of the coolest feats Baumgartner has achieved was his skydive across the English Channel. Using a pair of 6-foot carbon-fiber wings, he leapt from a plane at 30,000 feet and then flew at speeds up to 220 miles per hour to travel 22 miles across the channel in just over 14 minutes. Baumgartner trained for the stunt for three years -- going so far as to strap himself to the top of a speeding car.

"Jackass" -- the name says it all. The runaway hit TV show from MTV, which later spawned a hit movie and sequel, features regular guys abusing their bodies for laughs. The TV show only ran for two seasons, but has since launched the legitimate acting career of star Johnny Knoxville as well as five different spin-off shows. A typical episode of "Jackass" might have included Knoxville being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest or co-star Steve-O taking hits from a stun gun -- all filmed with inexpensive video cameras. The show was an instant hit, and the jackasses soon became household names. Although "Jackass" had disclaimers at the beginning of each show, stories of copycat stunts started to pop up all over the country. Kids were endangering themselves by trying to duplicate some of the reckless stunts. Senator Joseph Lieberman became a thorn in the side of the production and ultimately forced the cancellation of the show through increasing pressure on MTV and its advertisers.

For more information on all things daring, please look into the links on the next page.



Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "Daredevils of Niagara Falls.", 2008.
  • "Daredevils of Niagara Falls.", 2008.
  • "Explorers, Daredevils, and Record Setters - An Overview." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, 2008.
  • "Historical Review.", 2008.
  • "Last words from Bluebird preserved." BBC, December 10, 2002.
  • Evil Knievel's Web site.
  • Felix Baumgartner's Web site.
  • "Jackass: The Movie." Internet Movie Database.
  • "Niagara Falls Fast Facts." Info Niagara.
  • Marks, Peter. "OUR TOWNS; Target Practice for Life As Human Cannonball." The New York Times, August 31, 1993.
  • McCraken, Ed. "Highly Strung; He's walked a tightrope between the twin towers, over." The Sunday Herald, February 9, 2003.
  • "Jackass" web page. MTV.
  • N., Misty. "I Wouldn't Do That: The History of Extreme Daredevils." Associated content, May 30, 2005.
  • Oknst, David H. "Wing Walkers." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, 2008.
  • Severo, Richard. "Evel Knievel, 69, Daredevil on a Motorcycle, Dies." The New York Times, Dcemeber 1, 2007.