On this day in 1835, famed showman P.T. Barnum and his circus, The Greatest Show on Earth, started their first tour of the U.S. Phineas Taylor Barnum, self-proclaimed Prince of Humbugs, was eager stretch the truth if that’s what it took to gather a crowd. One of his best known humbugs, or tricks, was the Feejee Mermaid. Barnum claimed that he had found the mummified body of a mermaid, and displayed it to the public. In reality, the body was probably just that of a strange-looking fish, but that didn’t stop the crowds from pouring in!
Of course, not everything in Barnum’s traveling show was based on trickery. The real heart of the circus has always been the amazing feats of derring-do put on by brave and skilled performers. In the modern incarnation of Barnum’s traveling show, Barnum and Bailey’s & Ringling Brothers’ Greatest Show on Earth, performers juggle, swing, ride animals, dangle from their own hair, and even have sword fights on a high wire!
The circus isn’t just for entertainment. Every act, from juggling to clowning to high aerial stunts, is based on a careful balance of physics. Scientists have even used the flying trapeze to help gather data on how to make a personal airbag for construction workers, to protect them if they fall off a building! You can use circus acts in your classroom as a way to examine the laws of motion: just search for “circus science” in Discovery Education for some great videos and lesson plans that show students how the laws of motion give rise to the fun and flash of circus tricks!
P.T. Barnum saw the cash and entertainment potential of the circus, and now it has spread all over the world as a hobby, an art, and a science. The creation of the traveling circus as we know it? Very cool.