The History of Parachutes

July 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Something that is now standard on most aircraft was once just a mere figment of the imagination. Parachutes have been around in one form or another for about 1000 years already, with the first nation known to use something remotely similar to them being the Chinese.

Probably the earliest known picture of a parachute was sketched by inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1514. His imagined design features a pyramid-like rigid frame filled with cloth, with an open bottom which would serve to catch air. The concept was created as a means for a person to jump from a flaming building. Though the concept was probably never actually developed, it did form the basis for Croatian Faust Vrancic’s rigid-framed parachute. In 1917 Vrancic took the plunge and tested his “Homo Volans” invention himself. His parachute also had a rigid frame, but featured a more rectangular design. Vrancic lived to write about the experience in Machinae Novae, in which he also detailed fifty-six other technologically advanced parachute designs. After that the idea was laid to rest for a while until Fausto Veranzino, a mathematician, resurrected it after about a hundred years of fitful slumber. Veranzino also sought proof in demonstration and he managed to jump several times from a tower in Venice in 1595.

However, the father of the modern parachute was Louis Sebastien Lenormand, who not only successfully jumped from the tower of the Parisian observatory in his own construction in 1783, but who also invented the name “Parachute” for his creation. It was around this time that the development of parachutes got a massive jump-start with the invention of the hot air balloon. Parachutes became the ultimate means of survival if one of these balloons suffered accident or injury and so they needed to work as efficiently as possible. With this in mind, French balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard became the next noteworthy developer of the parachute. He experimented by placing a variety of animals in a wicker basket connected to a parachute and then dropping them out the balloons. In 1785 he put himself in the basket, landed safely from a height of 2 400 meters and the world has never looked back since.

In 1797, traveling French performer Andre-Jacques Garnerin became the first person to make use of a parachute that looked more like an umbrella than a pyramid. It was also the first time that the parachute was not constantly open before the user jumped into the air. Unfortunately the new design struggled with the problem of dangerous air oscillations caused by the compressed air and eventually Gernerin’s friend Laland solved the problem by creating a hole in the middle of the canopy. The next development in the design of the parachute came in 1804 when the rigid frame was done away with. Not long after the first silky parachute with a canopy aperture was developed, followed by the then novelty idea of having a parachute packed in a sack. Up until this point the jumper was not able to control the opening of the parachute. That changed in 1908 when Leo Stevens designed a parachute that was released by the pulling of a rope. In 1911 the design of parachutes reached a new plateau when a smaller parachute was created to help pull out and open the bigger parachute – the best way to open a parachute from a back pack. This is a concept that is still very much in use today.

The first person to use a parachute to jump from an airplane was most likely Grant Morton. A short time later people realized that parachutes could save the lives of aircraft pilots and crew members and a variety of craft and pilots got fitted with the device. War and military defense proved to be a big factor in the many other minor adjustments made to the device, but today parachuting is very much seen as an enjoyable recreational activity. There are a number of different designs available and jumpers can not only choose when their parachutes open, but can guide their parachute and so have more control over where they land. Whether you use parachutes for sport, pleasure or safety, you no doubt greatly value this timeless device.

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