How did Parachuting get Off the Ground?

By Karl Pillham

The history of parachuting goes back a lot further than you might think. The principles, of using a lightweight single wing for slowing descent, actually date back almost a thousand years to kite observers in China. Men would be attached to large kites and sent up into the air on string to observe the enemy and report back to their commander. It was also used as a form of punishment, with one of the Ming Emperors ordering that hundreds of criminals should be strapped to kites and thrown off a cliff for his amusement. Such were the days before TV.

Possibly from Polo's writing, Italy became a hub for early parachute designs. There are tantalising pictures from as early as the 1400s which show men falling to earth holding parachute type designs. We can't know if these were ever really used, but Da Vinci's designs for a parachute certainly did work when tried out in 2000. A little after him the designer Fausto Loranzino drew an equally detailed sketch of an even more modern-looking parachute device which he may have used himself.

The pipe-dreams of the renaissance didn't really come into practice until the late 1700s. An incredibly brave visionary called Louis-Sbastien Lenormand jumped off a high tower while clinging to a modified umbrella in 1783. He landed safely, happy in the knowledge that he had invented his 'para-chute' which used the Greek for 'protect' and the French for 'fall' to make a new word. His fellow Frenchman Andr-Jacques Garnerin took the design further in 1797 by throwing himself from balloons using a flexible silk parachute.

Enthusiasm for parachutes somewhat died out with these early daredevils, until the idea of a safe escape mechanism from an aeroplane became imperative in 1902. Franz Reichelt's parachute suit showed promise, although he died in his first real experiment when jumping off the Eiffel Tower in 1911. That same year Grant Morten of the US and Gleb Kotelnikov of Russia made what could be called modern parachutes, both performing successful jumps from aircraft.

Of course that was just in time for WW1, when parachutes for observation balloonists became standard, and the designs quickly developed towards the chutes used today.

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