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Chester Melvin Vaniman (1866 – 1912) was an American aviator[1] and photographer who specialized in panoramic images. He was nicknamed the "Acrobatic Photographer." He shot images from gas balloons, ships masts, tall buildings and even a home-made 30 meter pole. He scaled buildings, hung from self-made slings, and scaled dangerous heights to capture his unique images.

Melvin Vaniman
M. Vaniman and cat.jpg
Melvin Vaniman and "Kiddo", on-board the RMS Trent, 1910
BornOctober 30, 1866
DiedJuly 2, 1912
Offshore, near Atlantic City, New Jersey
OccupationPhotographer, Aviator


Haleiwa Hotel, Honolulu, 1902
Pearl Harbor Dry Dock, c. 1902

Born to a farming family in Virden, Illinois, he was the eldest of four sons, and attended Valparaiso University in Indiana and Chicago.

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.[dubious ]

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

Aerial explorerEdit

Drawing of the airship Akron in which Vaniman lost his life

Some time 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 Walter Wellman's airship America. At the first attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1910 Vaniman sent one of the first aerial radio transmissions when he urged the launch boat to "come and get this goddam cat!" - "Kiddo" the cat who was (at first) not happy about being airborne. Kiddo caused such a ruckus, that the cat had to be placed inside a gunny sack and suspended below the airship's gondola.[2][3][4] They anticipated a five-day crossing, but the airship's motor failed after 38 hours, leaving it adrift until it was rescued two days later by the RMS Trent, a passing Royal Mail steamship.[5][6]


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.[7][8] 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.[9] Vaniman and his crew of four were killed just minutes after the Akron became airborne when it suddenly exploded in front of the gathered crowd near Atlantic City, and gondola plunged 750 meters into an inlet. The other victims were his brother Calvin Vaniman, Fred Elmer, George Bourtillion, and Walter Guest. Subsequent investigation indicated that internal pressure had split the bag.[10]


The State Library of New South Wales has the world's most extensive collection of his panoramas.[11]


  1. ^ Melvin Vaniman at
  2. ^ "Kiddo, the airship cat" Purr'n'Fur
  3. ^ "“Roy, come and get this goddamn cat” was the first ever in-flight radio transmission"
  4. ^ Copping, Jasper. "America the airship: the first transatlantic crossing" The Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2010. Accessed: 1 November 2014.
  5. ^ Trevelyan, Laura (2010-10-15). "Airship America's landmark crossing attempt recalled". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-10-15.
  6. ^ Davies, Alan. "Vaniman, the acrobatic photographer". State Library of New South Wales 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-09-04. enlarged again to 9760 cubic metres volume, giving a lifting capacity of 12 tonnes ... launched on 15 October 1910 ... crew of six, including Wellman and Vaniman and a stowaway cat
  7. ^ Akron at the National Underwater Marine Agency.
  8. ^ "Seiberling-Vaniman Goodyear airship Akron - 1911". Rosebud's WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive. Archived from the original on 2008-11-19. Retrieved 2016-11-30.
  9. ^ "The Vaniman Balloon" Popular Mechancs, December 1911, p. 810.
  10. ^ Dilks, John. What Happened After the Rescue? QST, January 2011, pp. 95-6.
  11. ^ ""A Different Perspective: Vaniman, the acrobatic photographer"". Archived from the original on February 19, 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-22. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link).

External linksEdit