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George Edward Dering on a tightrope

Since this topic strays so widely from electricity and magnetism – the central topics of the Vail Collection – we can only speculate why the collection contains so many books on gymnastics and exercise. We know that Dering was an avid tightrope walker. The only known photo of Dering captures him sitting on a tightrope, balance pole in hand, as he teeters above the river Rimram, which ran through his estate in Hertfordshire. Dering’s tightrope skills were honed by “Blondin,” a French tightrope walker famous for having crossed Niagara Falls, more than once, on a highwire. It’s no great leap to suggest that Dering may have had an interest in general fitness and other balance sports.

J.A.L. Werner. Medicinische Gymnastik, 1850

Dering was collecting these books just as gymnastics was gaining legitimacy as a sport. The activities may be rooted in ancient Greek athletic competitions, but the exercises we have come to recognize as modern gymnastics emanate from the work of German physical educators during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. (It’s worth mentioning that many of the gymnastics books in the Vail Collection are German.) The Federation of International Gymnastics was formed in 1881, and gymnastics was included in the 1896 Olympic Games. When it came to athletics, just as with his experiments in telegraphy and electricity, it would seem that George Dering was on the cutting edge.

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A.C. Neumann. Lehrbuch der Leibesübung des Menschen, 1856

G. Mercuriale. De arte gymnastica, 1587

A.M. Böttcher. Der Turn-Unterricht für die Volksschule, 1861