Sunday, January 22, 2012

Name That Audience 11

Nothing like a big open field, where well-dressed people can watch... air show.

This is a photo of the crowd (estimated at 75,000 people total) gathered for one of the first air shows in the United States, on October 30, 1910, at the Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island, New York. The show at Belmont included an international roster of pilots, all competing in races, altitude duels and other contests that showcased the new technology of flight.

The phenomenon of watching human beings take to the skies was not unheard of; people had been doing so since at least the days of the first balloon flights in the late 1700s. (By the way, for great descriptions of early ballooning, see Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science).

Balloon Ascension, Concord State Fair, Concord, NH 1901

But the "air show" was quite a different sort of event--loud, exciting, attracting tens of thousands. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission reports that the attractions of air shows included novelty of the technology and the rather outrageous stunts of the pilots. There was certainly also an element of danger involved. One important result, for audiences, was a sense of "air awareness":
Many spectators were suddenly conscious not only of the airplane's entertainment value but also some of its utilitarian potential. Notably, the U.S. air meets of 1910 also motivated several would-be pilots, many who would become key figures during the early exhibition era of aviation, to learn to fly.
Of course, the first air shows presented challenges for spectatorship, since everyone had to look up for hours on end; grandstands, which had become standard for outdoor sporting events at this time (see my post on "Audience Engineering"), just didn't really work, as Puck Magazine suggested in this 1915 cartoon below, where spectators in the stands are all either reclining, lying on their backs, or propping their bodies in the appropriate position for viewing with sticks and supports.

I don't think we've actually solved how to properly see an air show--except to keep one's distance.

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