Saturday, December 19, 2009
Madmen Across the Water
I'm in this week's New Scientist with a brief history of aquatic pedestrianism:
The first well-documented walk on water came in 1844, when Robert Kjellberg and Tonnes Balcken glided through Hanover on pontoon shoes made of thinly beaten metal. They showed that it was possible to carry a heavy knapsack and fire a rifle without sinking and taught the local army garrison how to use their invention. While no water-walking army materialised, Kjellberg was soon touring England as the "Water King". His exhibitions captured the Victorian imagination, and imitators around the world followed in his sloshing footsteps.
"Anybody can do it. It may be, that before long... the shining path marked out upon the waters by the silvery beams of the moon will become a fashionable promenade," declared the Toronto Globe after witnessing a local water-walker striding the Don River in 1854. "No stones will be there to vex those troubled with tender feet, no bruises can result from a fall, no danger is to be apprehended from carelessly driven cabs, or viciously given dogs."
Yet the idea of waterborne warfare was never far away. The same account foresaw "the crossing of armies over rivers", and in 1910 inventor Luigi Rissi taught an Italian soldier to fire a rifle from "hydro skis". Oldrieve's contribution was perhaps more fanciful than practical: during his  walk in New York harbour he calmly lit sticks of dynamite with his cigar and tossed them into the East river, where they sent spectacular fountains shooting 20 metres into the air.
"Professor" Charles W. Oldreive was one of the most popular water-walkers, and eventually capped off his exploits by winning a $5000 bet in 1907 to walk down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, from Cincinatti to New Orleans.
From the New York Journal of 16 January 1898, here's Oldrieve engaged in the highly professorial act of blowing shit up in New York Harbor: