Born into an Italian circus family, human cannon-ball Hugo Zacchini (1898–1975) spent four decades entertaining audiences with his flight path as he soared through the air, launched by cannon power. The crowd-pleasing daredevil retired in his 60s to focus on his painting, becoming widely known for his circus-related artwork featuring clowns, performers, and scenes from both inside and outside the big top.
From the 1920s to the 1990s, the Italian Zacchini family ran its own circus and owned the human cannonball act. The Zacchinis developed a unique cannon-propulsion system in the 1920s and arrived in the United States a decade later to perform with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. At one point, they had as many as five cannonballers performing on the circuit. While the Zacchini family boasted many cannonpropelled acrobats among its ranks, Hugo Zacchini rose to the top of the pack: his human cannonball act thrilled crowds because of the danger involved. As Esse Forrester O'Brien reported in her book Circus: Cinders to Sawdust, some 50 people outside the Zacchini family attempted to copy the act and 32 of them died, mostly from missing the safety net.
Each time Hugo Zacchini took flight, he risked his life. Both the cannon angle and a variable wind speed affected his flight path, and he sometimes lost consciousness during the launch. With only seconds in the air, Zacchini had to come to, regain his bearings, and make the course corrections required for him to land safely in the net. In a 1933 Popular Science article featuring the Zacchinis, Fred Bradna explained that Zacchini “has calculated that he can guide his body six feet to the right or the left or can shorten or lengthen his flight nine feet by controlling his position during the three seconds he is hurtling swiftly through the air.”
Zacchini was born on October 20, 1898, in Santa Ana, Peru, to Maddalena and Ildebrando Zacchini. A native of Italy, Ildebrando Zacchini founded the Circus Olympia in the early 1900s, guiding his traveling family circus through Europe, South America, and the Middle East. In addition to Hugo, the Zacchini children included six boys—Bruno, Vittorio, Emmanuel, Edmondo, Mario, and Teobaldo—as well as sisters Jolanda and Olga, all of whom joined the family business. Because other siblings were mastering wire walking and tumbling, Hugo first trained as a juggler and trapeze artist. Although he was committed to the family livelihood, he also loved painting and graduated from the Rome Arts Academy in 1919. He was reported to have been friends with noted painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
Ildebrando first got the idea for a human cannon from reading Jules Verne's 1865 sci-fi classic From the Earth to the Moon, in which several industrious men set their minds to building a space gun capable of shooting people to the moon. During World War I (1914–1918), several of the Zacchini boys served in the Italian military, and Edmondo pondered his father's idea while sitting in a bunker in Monte Grappa, on the Italian front. Daydreaming about using human cannonballs for military maneuvers, he envisioned shooting soldiers behind enemy lines that were too tough for infantry to penetrate.
While many historians credit the Zacchinis with creating the human cannonball stunt, in fact, they were not the first. In 1877, a female performer named Zazel had used a spring-loaded cannon to fly through the air, but her short career ended when she broke her back during a performance. In the 1910s, German stuntman Paul Leinert also wowed crowds with his spring-loaded cannon.
While Edmondo did not come up with the idea for a human cannon, he modernized the design. Returning to the family circus after World War I, he sketched designs and hired a machine shop to forge the barrel. Then the experiments began. Initially, he attempted a springloaded launch mechanism similar to that used by Zazel, but on his fourth attempt, he turned to compressed air, which was safer and offered a more predictable launch. Cannonballers in the 21st century still used Edmondós compressed-air method.
Inside the barrel of his compressed-air cannon, Edmondo installed a piston on which the human cannonball would stand; when the compressed air was released, it forced the piston up toward the end of the barrel and propelled the cannon's occupant skyward. He also attached his new cannon to a truck to give it added launch stability as well as portability. While Edmondo provided the brains behind the Zacchini cannon, his brothers helped to refine it. They experimented by launching “dummies” to get the trajectory right and determined how much air pressure per square foot would be needed to launch an adult male.
In November 1922, the Zacchini family debuted a new act, “L'Uomo Proiettile” (“The Bullet Man”) in Cairo, with Edmondo taking flight. Unfortunately, the venture failed and Edmondo broke his leg. After more tinkering, the Zacchinis tried again, this time launching Hugo into the air. After a successful landing, he became a huge sensation, performing the feat with the family circus all over Europe. Crowds gathered at the circus gate waiting to get in and would walk away if they were told Zacchini would not fly from the cannon that day.
As Hugo Zacchinís nephew later told Sue Carlton of the St. Petersburg Times, of all the brothers, he was “the charmer with the least acrobatic talent.” Fortunately, bravado, rather than acrobatic skill, was required for the cannon. Several of the brothers attempted the cannon and broke bones regularly, Edmondo suffering five broken legs before he gave up trying to master it. Hugo seemed to have the best luck; although he also broke some bones, he only had one major accident when he caught the edge of the safety net and sheared some skin off his back. After several weeks in the hospital, he returned to the circus.
Despite the danger, Hugo Zacchini seemed nonplussed. “Oh, I used to be frightened,” he once told an interviewer, according to New York Times writer John T. McQuiston. “When I am shot out, the jar knocks the breath from my lungs.” Zacchini went on to explain that he caught his breath in flight, only to have it knocked out again when he slammed into the safety net.
In 1929, John Ringling witnessed Hugós performance at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, and he immediately signed him to a contract. After Hugo and brother Bruno moved to the United States to join Ringlinǵs circus, the rest of the family quickly followed and by 1932 were settled in Tampa, Florida. Because traveling circuses in the United States toured during the summer and took winters off, many performers settled in warm states like Florida so they could practice their acts during the off-season.
By 1933, the Zacchini family had about 30 members living in the United States, most of them involved with the human cannonball act as either performers or helpers. Edmondo built the cannons and arranged for teams of family members to perform, and his daughters Duina and Egle soon got in on the act as well. Typically, Bruno worked the controls for Hugós flights and Edmondo administered the controls for Vittoriós flights. In 1934, Edmondo invented a double-barrel cannon that could shoot two Zacchini brothers skyward in quick succession. Hugo and Vittorio debuted this new “super double” cannon at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and it became the star attraction of the 1934 circus. In 1939, Hugo Zacchini was featured at the New York World's Fair.
Because the actual “flight” lasted only seconds, the Zacchini circus used an extended buildup to exploit the launch. First, the family member in charge of the launch walked to the control panel on the side of the cannon truck. A brass band then struck up a tune while Hugo Zacchini swaggered across the ring, costumed in a white leather jumpsuit, a crash helmet, and a mask. He would then make a show of saturating himself in talcum powder to reduce the friction during the launch. Finally, he climbed into the barrel opening, lowering halfway in and then waving goodbye to the crowd before sliding down and placing his feet on the top of the piston. Once Hugo was settled inside, Bruno punched some buttons on the wired remote and the piston shot forward, propelled by compressed air at 150 to 200 pounds per square inch. The piston pushed Zacchini out head first, launching him into the sky at a slight angle. For dramatic effect, black gunpowder was ignited during the launch, the flash of light and puff of smoke suggesting an explosion even though the contraption operated using compressed air.
In a typical flight, Zacchini traveled about 150 feet from the cannon to the net, following an arc that crowned out at about 75 feet above the ground. The quarters inside the cannon were tight, so tight in fact that he could not crawl out on his own. If the cannon jammed, which it sometimes did, he was trapped inside, with black gunpowder smoke spewing out around him until he was rescued. As an independent contractor, Hugo Zacchini worked for a succession of circuses, performing his act up to four times a day while employed by the Clyde Beatty Circus (1955), the Cristiani Bros. Circus, and the King Bros. Circus.
By 1948, the Zacchinis' family compound consisted of five Spanish-style homes located on ten acres along Fountain Boulevard in Tampa, Florida. Behind the residences were machine shops where they assembled and repaired the cannon and other equipment. There were trampolines, nets, trapezes, and tightropes strung across the backyards where new generations learned and older performers practiced their various circus skills. Edmondo trained those who wanted to work with the cannon, starting them with tenfoot flights and working up to longer distances. Most of the siblings got in on the act, but not all. The youngest Zacchini brother, Teobaldo, completed one flight, hurt his hip, and never tried the cannon again.
Hugo Zacchini made his last flight in 1961, retiring at age 63 after enduring an estimated 11,000 shots from the cannon. He eventually left Florida and moved to Fontana, California, where he focused on his oil painting and sketching. He had developed his skills as an artist during his circus days because his human cannonball act was so short, and he focused on capturing circus life. During his last years, he taught art at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and his first exhibition was staged in 1973, at Manatee Junior College in Florida. According to Tom Ogden, author of Two Hundred Years of the American Circus, Zacchini once told a reporter that he longed to be remembered as a painter instead of a human bullet. “Do not forget that it is as a painter, as an artist, that it is my ambition to be known,” he explained. “My cannon cannot give me the thrills that I can get with my brush.”
Zacchini died of a stroke in San Bernardino, Califor nia, on his 77th birthday, October 20, 1975. He left behind his wife, Elsbeth Walker Zacchini, and children Pachay and Hugo, the latter who carried on the family tradition. Two years after his father's death, the younger Hugo was involved in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. The lawsuit sprang from an action in 1972, when Hugo Jr. performed at an Ohio county fair and a local television station (owned by Scripps-Howard) filmed and broadcasted his act without gaining his permission. He sued, stating that the news team had unlawfully appropriated his professional property (i.e., his act). In ruling in Zacchini's favor, the Court said the station had no right to use his “persona” without paying for it. Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. remained important 30 years later as celebrity sports figures argued for control of their “images.”
In addition to being carried on by Hugo Zacchini, Jr., the cannonball act begun by Hugo Zacchini was continued by a nephew, Edmondo's son Hugo. This Hugo was the final Zacchini cannonballer; when he made his last flight in August of 1991 at the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, it marked the end of nearly seven decades of flying Zacchinis.
O'Brien, Esse Forrester, Circus: Cinders to Sawdust, Naylor Co., 1959.
Ogden, Tom, Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From Aba-Daba to the Zoppe-Zafatta Troupe, Facts on File, 1993.
Life, April 26, 1948, John Kobler, “The Zacchinis: A Lively Italian-American Family Earns Living Being Shot from Cannons,” pp. 111–119.
New York Times, November 21, 1975, John T. McQuiston, “Hugo Zacchini, 77, Dies; First Human Cannonball,” p. 40.
Pomona Progress Bulletin (CA), July 2, 1977.
Popular Science, August 1933, Fred Bradna, “DeathDefying Stunts of Circus Dare-Devils Helped by Science,” pp. 22–24, 87.
Sarasota Herald Tribune (FL), July 19, 1948, “Ildebrando Zacchini Dies”; October 21, 1975, “‘Original Human Cannonball’ Dies of Stroke in California.”
St. Petersburg Times, September 4, 2006, Sue Carlton, “Showman's Memories.”□