First person: ‘I was the world’s first bungee jumper’

Author: Interview by Charlotte Philby

Edward Hulton, Simon Keeling, Tim Hunt, Alan Western, and I, started DSC in
the early Seventies, while at Oxford University. Hulton was a man who was
able to do anything interesting in life that he felt like, and together, we
started inventing. We once built an imitation of Otto Lilienthal’s flying
machine, and went to Switzerland to watch bobsleighing at Cresta. We decided
this was an out-of-date extreme sport for German industrialists to impress
their mistresses. We decided it was time to invent something new.

Edward had suggested we go vine jumping in New Guinea, where natives leap from
tall structures, attached to vines. The flight in 1976 cost £750, which I
could not afford, so we thought we’d use elastic cords and jump off Clifton
Suspension Bridge as a tribute to the people in New Guinea. Then we did
nothing about it for about three years. In 1979, we had been filmed
hand-gliding off Kilimanjaro and Olympus but needed additional footage to
finish the film, and came back to bungee jumping.

On 1 April 1979, I was the first person ever to go off a bridge as a surreal
sport. It is a bit of fun, but also an intellectual challenge involving
engineering, gravity, and mathematics. A Nobel Prize nominee worked with us,
and my father was an alpinist so I knew all about methods of attachment. On
the day, because I’d been busy on the details of the drop, the other jumpers
waited for me to go first, to see if my theories were right. It was a
hilarious event. We knew that gathering a group of Oxford graduates at
Clifton Suspension Bridge at 8am would be near impossible, so we arranged an
all-night party at a flat opposite the evening before. Getting civilians to
do a military job after a large party isn’t easy, but it worked.

At 8am, I dropped off the edge of Clifton Suspension Bridge, attached to a
rope. Seeing that I had in fact survived, the others soon followed. We’d
known we’d be arrested for breach of the peace, but there was a lot of good
will all round; the Bristol police really can take a joke. They bought
bottles of wine wrapped in paper bags, to our cells. We paid a token fine
and were soon released.

Since then, we’ve done many stunts. We once put a piano on skis, with a man
playing Chopin’s Polonaise on it as it descended. A friend of mine living in
Mali said a tribe there, living in a tiny hut with a single generator, saw
it on TV one day and collapsed with laughter. Surreal images can transcend
race and religion. And I think Chopin would have liked it.

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