The History of Parachutes

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Podcast Transcript

Centuries ago, someone decided jumping from a great height and trying to land without being injured would be a good idea. 

…and in a few cases, it actually worked….although in many more cases, it didn’t. 

Once humans actually figured out how to fly, they realized that there might be an actual use for this stunt. 

Learn more about parachutes, parachuting, and how and why this particular technology was developed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

On behalf of myself and the greater Everything Everywhere Daily family, I would like to start this episode by formally thanking all the people throughout history who flung themselves off buildings and cliffs in the name of science and developing the technology we know today as parachutes. 

There are certain things that we as a species know that must have been very difficult to learn. For example, how do we know which plants and mushrooms are poisonous and which are safe? That required a lot of trial and error over thousands of years, and there must have been a lot of people that… shall I put it….took one for the team.

Parachuting, I think, falls into that camp. Today, parachuting is pretty much down to a science, but it is something that doesn’t allow for a whole lot of trial and error. If you fling yourself from a great height, you only get to fail once. 

With that being said, one of the earliest and probably apocryphal descriptions of an early parachute dates back 4000 years. A historian from the Chinese Han Dynasty wrote of the legendary Emperor Shun, who, as a young man, was the target of a plot by his father to kill him. 

His father was going to kill him by getting him to the roof of a building and then setting the building on fire. Shun managed to escape by holding two large conical bamboo hats and jumping off the building. It was said that the hats acted like the wings of a bird and brought him to the ground safely. 

There is no indication as to how high the building was. 

The next reference to something akin to a parachute was in 852, in Córdoba, Spain. The great Islamic polymath Abbas ibn Firnas created a large cloak that was stiffened by wood and used to break his fall when he jumped out of a tower. According to reports of the event, “there was enough air in the folds of his cloak to prevent great injury when he reached the ground.”

This event, too, might not have happened. There is only one mention of it, published years after he lived, and it might have been confused with another attempt he later made to fly by creating his own pair of wings. 

There are mentions of Chinese acrobats around the 11th to 13th centuries who jumped from heights and landed safely as part of their performance. 

All of these examples are impossible to verify and might never have happened. If they did, they certainly didn’t result in widespread parachuting. 

The first real evidence we have of something akin to a parachute designed for the purpose of slowing a fall came from an anonymous manuscript from the 15th century. A sketch in it shows a man holding a wooden frame at the bottom of a conical parachute. 

The design wouldn’t have worked in practice, but it definitely shows that the idea of using air resistance to slow a fall was something that was being considered. 

In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a parachute that was designed in the shape of a pyramid. While not an optimal design, in 2000, a British parachutist named Adrian Nicholas used da Vinci’s design to do a 10,000-foot jump, and in 2008, a Swiss parachutist named Olivier Vietti-Teppa did the same and jumped out of a helicopter. 

The landings were rough, but it worked. 

In the early 17th century, a Venitian inventor named Fausto Veranzio designed a parachute that was much broader and had an area closer to that of a sail. 

I should note that with all the cases I’ve mentioned so far, there is no real evidence that anyone actually tested these ideas. There are stories and legends and little else. 

The person who took these ideas and turned them into something real was the French inventor Sebastien Lenormand. On December 26, 1783, he made the first publicly documented jump when he leaped off the observatory tower in Montpellier, France. He used a rigid frame that was 14 feet or 4.3 meters across. 

Today we’d probably call it a glider more than a parachute, but, hats off to him, he put his money where his mouth was and jumped out of a tower which was 26 meters or 85 feet tall.

It was Lenormand who, in 1785, coined the word parachute. It came from the Latin word ‘para’, meaning against, and the French word ‘chute’ for fall. 

That same year, Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated his parachute by throwing a dog out out of a hot air balloon. The dog landed on the ground safely.

The first jump that we could call a real modern parachute jump took place on October 22, 1797, by André-Jacques Garnerin, the inventor of the frameless parachute, the type of parachute you would recgonize today.

His parachute, which was 30 feet or 10 meters in diameter, was attached to a basket and hoisted below a balloon. He was dropped from a height of 8000 feet or 2400 meters.

Two years later, his wife, Jeanne, became the first woman to parachute. 

These parachutes were pre-deployed, meaning they weren’t packed away like a modern parachute. 

I should note that on July 24, 1837, Robert Cocking became the first recorded person to die in a parachute accident. He perished in front of a large crowd after falling from a height of 5,000 feet. 

His death reduced the popularity of parachuting for decades. 

There was little innovation in parachutes over the next century. They were primarily used for demonstrations and to wow crowds at festivals.

It wasn’t until 1907 that the American inventor Charles Broadwick developed several parachute innovations that totally changed how parachutes worked and how they would be used. 

The first major innovation was packing a parachute into a backpack. Until this point, parachutes were just loose and open in a balloon. The backpack was worn with a full-body harness. 

His second innovation was a cord that attached to the backpack that would open the backpack when it was taught. This static line opening system was used in many early military parachute systems and is still sometimes used today. 

Broadwick made these innovations while jumping out of balloons at fairs.

However, it soon became obvious that Broadwick’s parachute system would be ideal for the new invention known as airplanes. 

The first parachute jump from an airplane was done by Grant Morton, who jumped out of a Wright Brothers Model B in 1911. That same year, the Russian Gleb Kotelnikov independently invented the knapsack parachute. 

This new design of a parachute that was worn and stowed on the jumper’s back allowed for a parachute to be opened at any arbitrary time during a fall, not just immediately after a jumper left the aircraft. 

In 1914, a woman named Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick did demonstration jumps, and during one jump, her static line got tangled, so she cut it off. In that jump, she inadvertently made the world’s first free fall, and she manually pulled the cut static cord, creating the rip cord.

During the First World War, artillery spotters in hot air balloons were easy targets, so parachutes were used as a safety measure for the spotters.

In 1918, the Germans deployed parachutes for their pilots as a safety measure, but it was far from perfect. A third of pilots who had to jump from their aircraft died. 

After the war, improvements were made to parachutes, which improved safety for pilots and allowed for easier exiting of the aircraft. 

However, safety was only one of the uses for parachutes. 

In 1927, Italy began experimenting with using parachutes to drop troops behind enemy lines. This idea radically changed warfare by integrating infantry with aviation. It created a new category of soldier known as the paratrooper.

There was very limited use of parachutes dropping soldiers behind enemy lines in the First World War, but these were usually single individuals who were spying or conducting reconnaissance. 

There were many innovations to parachutes during the interwar period. The primary material shifted from silk to nylon. This was largely done because of restrictions on the supply of silk from Japan. 

Different designs were created, which allowed for different uses, including drag chutes for aircraft and parachutes that could drop equipment. 

During the Second World War, paratroopers were used extensively. Paratroopers were the first troops sent on D-Day. The largest airborne drop of the war occurred with Operation Market Garden, which I covered in a previous episode. Over 20,000 men were dropped behind enemy lines in the Market phase of the operation.

The parachutes used during WWII were round in shape. They were designed to land someone safely, but they were not very maneuverable. They could maneuver the parachute somewhat by pulling on the cords that connected their harness to the parachute, but that was it. 

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as when a drop was made, one of the primary objectives was to ensure that everyone landed in roughly the same spot.

It wasn’t until 1963 that the problem of parachute maneuverability was solved with the development of the Ram-Air Multicell Airfoil, also known as the parafoil. 

A parafoil is basically a soft wing that inflates with air. They tended to be more rectangular rather than round. 

The ability of a parafoil to be steered and controlled was a huge innovation. Now, you could jump out of an airplane in one location and land in another location that was far from the original drop point. 

A type of jump known as a High Altitude High Opening jump could allow a paratrooper to travel as far as 40 miles or 64 kilometers from where they jumped. 

Another type of jump is an High Altitude Low Opening jump or a halo jump. These jumps often occur at altitudes over 40,000 feet, above the range of many anti-aircraft defenses. 

HALO jumps can provide more stealthy drops by minimizing the time with the chute open.

The parafoil also allowed for landings with a high degree of precision. Trained parachutists can literally land on a bullseye. 

This has led to the development of parachuting teams like the US Army Golden Eagles, who often put on public performances. 

There have been several jumps that have tested the limits of how parachutes can be used. 

On August 16, 1960, Joseph Kittinger conducted a jump from 102,800 feet or 31,333 meters from a high-altitude balloon on the edge of the stratosphere. He spent 4 minutes and 36 seconds in free fall. 

That record stood until Felix Baumgartner made a jump from an altitude of 127,852 feet or 38,969.3 meters in 2012. He achieved a speed of 833.9 mph or 1,342.0 km/h in freefall, the equivalent of March 1.1.

His record only stood for two years when it was broken by Alan Eustace, who jumped from 135,889.108 feet or 41,419 meters.

Today, anyone can parachute. You can do recreational parachute jumps at many airports, and they can cater to complete novices. 

Parachutes have revolutionized warfare, fighting forest fires, and airplane safety. All it took was someone having enough nerve to strap something to their back and jump from an extremely high height.