The Long History of the Parachute

Army Rangers being dropped from an airplane against a perfect blue sky.

12019/Pixabay

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 centuries earlier.

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Early History of the Parachute

Sketch of the homo valans as sketched by Faust Vrancic.

Faust Vrančić/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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 56 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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First Recorded Parachute Jump

Sketch of Andrew Garnerin descending in his balloon-like parachute device.

Fulgence Marion (pseudonym of Camille Flamarrion)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

Color sketch of Andrew Garnerin's parachute design.

Romanet & cie., imp. edit./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When opened, the Andrew Garnerin parachute resembled a huge umbrella about 30 feet in diameter. It was made of canvas and was attached to a hydrogen balloon.

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First Death, Harness, Knapsack, Breakaway

Photograph from early 1900s showing a man parachuting.

V.Leers/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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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First Freefall

Georgia

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

Amelia Earhart close up standing in front of a plane.

Underwood & Underwood (active 1880 – c. 1950)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Polish-American Stanley Switlik founded the "Canvas-Leather Speciality Company" on October 9, 1920. The company first manufactured items like leather hampers, golf bags, coal bags, pork roll casings, and postal mailbags. 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

Several people jumping out of the back of a plane as seen from first person perspective.

Pixabay/Pexels

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.

Sources

Dunlop, Doug. "Leap of Faith: Robert Cocking’s Parachute Experiment of July 24, 1837." Smithsonian Libraries, July 24, 2013.

"K. Paulus." Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"Our Story." Switlik Parachute Co., 2019.