History of the Parachute

Credit for the invention of the first practical parachute frequently goes to Sebastien Lenormand who demonstrated the parachute principle in 1783. However, parachutes had been imagined and sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) centuries earlier.

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Early History of the Parachute

Faust Vrancic's Homo Volans Parachute
Faust Vrancic

Faust Vrancic - Homo Volans

Before Sebastien Lenormand, other early inventors designed and tested parachutes. Croatian Faust Vrancic, for instance, constructed a device based on Da Vinci's drawing.

To demonstrate it, Vrancic jumped from a Venice tower in 1617 wearing a rigid-framed parachute. Vrancic detailed his parachute and published it in Machinae Novae, in which he describes in text and pictures fifty-six advanced technical constructions, including Vrancic's parachute, which he called the Homo Volans.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard - Animal Parachute

Frenchman Jean Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) was probably the first person to actually use a parachute for an emergency. In 1785, he dropped a dog in a basket in which a parachute was attached from a balloon high in the air.

First Soft Parachute

In 1793, Blanchard claimed to have escaped from a hot air balloon that exploded with a parachute. However, there were no witnesses. Blanchard, it should be noted, did develop the first foldable parachute made from silk. Up until that point, all parachutes were made with rigid frames.

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Andrew Garnerin - First Recorded Parachute Jump

Premier descent en parachute

Painting by Etienne Chevalier de Lorimier

In 1797, Andrew Garnerin became the first person recorded to jump with a parachute without a rigid frame. Garnerin jumped from hot air balloons as high as 8,000 feet in the air. Garnerin also designed the first air vent in a parachute intended to reduce oscillations.

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Andrew Garnerin's Parachute

Three Views of Andrew Garnerin Parachute
LOC: Tissandier Collection

When opened, the Andrew Garnerin parachute resembled a huge umbrella about thirty feet in diameter. It was made of canvas and was attached to a hydrogen balloon.

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First Death, Harness, Knapsack, Breakaway

1920 Parachute Design

Here are a few little-known facts about parachutes.

  • In 1837, Robert Cocking became the first person to die from a parachute accident.
  • In 1887, Captain Thomas Baldwin invented the first parachute harness.
  • In 1890, Paul Letteman and Kathchen Paulus invented the method of folding or packing the parachute in a knapsack to be worn on a person's back before its release. Kathchen Paulus was also behind the invention of the intentional breakaway, which is when one small parachute opens first and pulls open the main parachute.
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Jumping From An Airplane, First Freefall

1920 Parachute Design

Two parachuters claim to be the first person to jump from an airplane. Both Grant Morton and Captain Albert Berry parachuted from an airplane in 1911. In 1914, Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick made the first freefall jump.

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First Parachute Training Tower

1933 Parachute Design

Polish-American Stanley Switlik founded the "Canvas-Leather Speciality Company" on October 9, 1920. The company first manufactured items such as leather hampers, golf bags, coal bags, pork roll casings, and postal mail bags. However, Switlik soon switched to making pilot and gunner belts, designing flight clothing and experimenting with parachutes. The company was soon renamed the Switlik Parachute & Equipment Company.

According to the Switlik Parachute Company: "In 1934, Stanley Switlik and George Palmer Putnam, Amelia Earhart's husband, formed a joint venture and built a 115-foot tall tower on Stanley's farm in Ocean County. Designed to train airmen in parachute jumping, the first public jump from the tower was made by Ms. Earhart on June 2, 1935. Witnessed by a crowd of reporters and officials from the Army and Navy, she described the descent as "Loads of Fun!"​

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Parachute Jumping

Modern parachuting
Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

Parachute jumping as a sport began in the 1960s when new "sports parachutes" were first designed. The parachute above drive slots for greater stability and horizontal speed.