André-Jacques Garnerin and His Parachute

The word parachute is derived from the Greek word para and the French word chute, which together means preventing a fall. The idea of parachuting originated sometime in the 1600s in the Renaissance period and was soon put into action because by the late 1600s, there were reports of a man entertaining the Siam court with “prodigious leaps … [using] two parachutes or umbrellas fastened to his girdle.”[1] A hundred years later, a Monsieur le Normand demonstrated parachute jumps from a house at Lyons, believing parachutes were a feasible means of escape burning houses. However, the first person who thought of the parachute as something to be used for high altitude jumps was a man named André-Jacques Garnerin.

André-Jacques Garnerin. Author’s collection

Garnerin was a student of Jacques Charles, a French inventor, mathematician, and ballooning pioneer who launched the world’s first unmanned hydrogen balloon in August 1783. Garnerin also worked with his brother, Jean-Baptiste-Olivier, in flying balloons. It was from lofty balloons that Garnerin first acquired a desire to descend to the earth using a parachute. He also seriously considered the parachute as a means of escape. He devised the perfect parachute after he was captured at Marchiennes and imprisoned in Budapest, Hungary, during the Napoleonic Wars.

The parachute Garnerin used was a canvas non-rigid, frameless, dome-shaped thing and was about twenty-three to thirty feet in diameter. “At the top was a truck or round piece of wood 10 inches in diameter, with a hole in its centre, fastened to the canvas by 32 short pieces of tape.”[2] It was suspended from a hoop and attached by netting to the balloon. The parachute was then attached to the lower part of the balloon, and beneath the parachute was a cylindrical basket where the parachutist, known as an aeronaut, rode. The parachute “could be detached by means of a cord [and] at the moment of … separation, the balloon, lightened by a considerable weight, rose very rapidly, and sometimes bursted in the air,”[3] while the parachute expanded and slowly descended to earth.

Garnerin made his first public parachute descent on October 22, 1797. At that time, he descended from a hot-air balloon that had taken off from Monceau Park in Paris. After cutting the deflated parachute loose, it inflated and all seemed well but then it began to violently oscillate, which terrified the gasping female spectators below. Fortunately, Garnerin landed safely on the “Monceau plains amid an immense crowd, which testified … [to the] talent and courage of the young aeronaut.”[4] He later repeated these descents so frequently that it was said he was the first to demonstrate “the practicability of using the machine.”[5]

Parachute descent in 1797 by Garnerin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aerial descents were also made by Garnerin in England, and one particularly memorable descent occurred in 1802. It happened at St. George’s Parade on North Audley Street in London. Excitement related to the event was palpable and one newspaper reported on the excitement stating:

“From a Correspondent who went for the purpose of seeing the parachute alight, we are favoured with the following particulars: – At half past four o’clock the public streets, even so distant as Temple Bar and Holborn were thronged with people flocking to the place of ascension, which lay between Grosvenor-square and Oxford-road. The nearer the approach to the place the crowds became greater, till at last the streets were crowded. Persons were on the tops of the churches and high houses. Grosvenor-square contained many people particularly the northwest corner; Duke street and Audley-street were blocked up with spectators and carriages, and Oxford-street from Bond-street to Tyburn Turnpike was still more crowded; the carriage-way was completely blocked up with coaches, the roofs of which were covered with spectators, while the foot pavement, and every inch was occupied by persons on foot; the tops of the houses and windows were also covered.”[6]

When the event began Garnerin ascended for about eight minutes. Reports stated:

“The balloon came very majestically over to above the top of Portland-road. The parachute unexpanded hung beneath it like a large roller, and beneath the parachute hung the small basket about three feet high, and two and a half in diameter, with Garnerin in it, whose flag could be distinctly seen waving at a great height; but the basket in which Garnerin was looked so small, it resembled a weight, and most people thought the parachute itself contained Garnerin.”[7]

The basket Garnerin was in resembled a hollow drum and over three feet high and about two and half feet in diameter. It was covered with a thin canvas over which was pasted a sort of mahogany-colored paper. When Garnerin finally cut the rope that released his parachute he was at about a height of 8000 feet. People reported that it then fell liked a “piece of lead.”

“For a few seconds his fate seemed certain, as the parachute retained the collapsed state in which it had originally ascended, and fell very rapidly. It suddenly, however, expanded, and the rapidity of its descent was at once checked.”[8]

But because it opened so quickly, the parachute began to oscillate violently. The car, which was suspended 20 feet below the parachute, seemed to be falling horizontally at times. One paper reported on the breathless event:

“It tossed and tumbled, swinging Garnerin, who was in his basket, suspended at about four yards distance, swinging him from side to side like the motion of the tongue of a bell, or like the pendulum of a clock: this swinging was so irregular, so violent, that Garnerin was flung up sometimes to a level with the parachute itself, and fears were entertained he would be flung over it, that the whole would overset, the parachute lose its balance, Mr. Garnerin be thrown out of the basket, or the parachute, losing its purchase on the air, that it would fall to the ground as rapidly as a stone, and Mr. Garnerin would be killed. The most lively alarms rose in the mind of every spectator, and the sight was so frightful many could not look at it.”[9]

Luckily, Garnerin was not thrown out and instead after cutting a weight, which broke the fall, he landed in a field behind St. Pancras Church. When it touched down everyone — ladies, gentlemen, horsemen, footmen, all classes, rushed and leaped over ditches and mud to get to the scene. Unfortunately, Garnerin did not land without injury because according to one source:

“[H]e was unable to speak, blood issued from his ears and nose, and he was in a state of great agitation.”[10]

André-Jacques Garnerin and his Descent in 1802, Public Domain

Garnerin’s Descent in 1802. Public domain.

About 5,000 people appeared at the scene and there was much concerned about Garnerin’s welfare.

“The populace now pressed much round Garnerin, inquiring if he was hurt. He seemed to wish for a respite, and waved his hand, as if begging not to trouble him. To secure him air, a Gentleman united his neckcloth, mounted him on his horse. Garnerin recovered his spirits, and waved his flag (which he had kept all the time) above the heads of the spectators, who cheered him in return. The parachute and basket were rolled up, and six men carried them on their shoulders to the Adam and Eve; a great concourse following, some of whom tore off the painted paper pasted over the basket, as memorials of their being present at its descent.”[11]

References:

  • [1] The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 1, 1890, p. 200.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Scientific American, Vol. 34, 1892, p. 14135.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Encyclopedia Britannica, p. 200. 
  • [6] “Garnerin’s Balloon and Parachute,” in Morning Post, 22 September 1802, p. 3.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Encyclopedia Britannica p. 201.
  • [9] “Garnerin’s Balloon and Parachute,” p. 3.
  • [10] The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Vol. 17, 1840, p. 224.
  • [11] “Garnerin’s Balloon and Parachute,” p. 3.

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