Who Invented the Parachute?
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was thought until recently to have been the first to design a parachute. But drawings have now been found that were made five years before da Vinci’s sketches, possibly by an engineer in Siena, central Italy. However, the first man to make and successfully use a parachute was a Frenchman, André-Jacques Garnerin (31 January 1769 – 18 August 1823) was a balloonist and the inventor of the frameless parachute. He was appointed Official Aeronaut of France. André-Jacques Garnerin stretched cloth across a bamboo framework and parachuted from a balloon over Paris in 1797.
It was an uncomfortable descent as the fabric was too thick to spill out any wind, and the parachute came down swinging violently like a pendulum. Garnerin was in a tiny basket, to which he clung tightly until his rough landing on the plain of Monceau. The parachutes of those days were developed from the crude canvas devices used to descend from hot air balloons.
Modern parachutes are made of pure silk or good-quality nylon in small panels and have a small pilot parachute which opens first and helps to pull out the main parachute. The earliest evidence for the modern parachute dates back to the Renaissance period. The oldest parachute design appears in an anonymous manuscript from 1470s Renaissance Italy, showing a free-hanging man clutching a cross bar frame attached to a conical canopy.
As a safety measure, four straps run from the ends of the rods to a waist belt. The design is a marked improvement over another folio, which depicts a man trying to break the force of his fall by the means of two long cloth streamers fastened to two bars which he grips with his hands. Although the surface area of the parachute design appears to be too small to offer effective resistance to the friction of the air and the wooden base-frame is superfluous and potentially harmful, the revolutionary character of the new concept is obvious.
Shortly after, a more sophisticated parachute was sketched by the polymath Leonardo da Vinci in his Codex Atlanticus dated to ca. 1485. Leonardo’s canopy was held open by a square wooden frame, which alters the shape of the parachute from conical to pyramidal. It is not known whether the Italian inventor was influenced by the earlier design, but he may have learned about the idea through the intensive oral communication among artist-engineers of the time.
The feasibility of Leonardo’s pyramidal design was successfully tested in 2000 by Briton Adrian Nicholas and again in 2008 by the Swiss skydiver Olivier Vietti-Teppa. According to the historian of technology Lynn White, these conical and pyramidal designs, much more elaborate than early artistic jumps with rigid parasols in Asia, mark the origin of “the parachute as we know it.”
The Croatian polymath and inventor Faust Vrančić (1551–1617) examined da Vinci’s parachute sketch, and set out to implement one of his own. He kept the square frame, but replaced the canopy with a bulging sail-like piece of cloth that he came to realize decelerates the fall more effectively. A now-famous depiction of a parachute that he dubbed Homo Volans (Flying Man), showing a man parachuting from a tower, presumably St Mark’s Campanile in Venice, appeared in his book on mechanics, Machinae Novae (1615 or 1616), alongside a number of other devices and technical concepts.
It was widely believed that in 1617, Veranzio, then aged 65 and seriously ill, implemented his design and tested the parachute by jumping from St Mark’s Campanile, from a bridge nearby, or from St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. In various publications it was falsely claimed that the event was documented some thirty years later by John Wilkins, founder and secretary of the Royal Society in London in his book Mathematical Magick or, the Wonders that may be performed by Mechanical Geometry, published in London in 1648.
However, in this book, John Wilkins wrote about flying, not about parachutes. He neither mentions Fausto Veranzio nor a parachute jump nor any event in 1617, and doubts about this test along with no written evidence of its occurrence, lead to the conclusion that it never occurred, and was caused by a misreading of historical notes.