André-Jacques Garnerin and His Parachute

André-Jacques Garnerin was the first person who thought of the parachute as something to be used for high altitude jumps. Yet, the idea of parachuting originated sometime in the 1600s in the Renaissance period. It was soon put into action because by the late 1600s because 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 that parachutes were a feasible means of escape burning houses. However, it was Garnerin who had the grandest vision of the parachute believing that high altitude jumps were possible.

André-Jacques Garnerin

André-Jacques Garnerin. Author’s collection


André-Jacques 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 and 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.

André-Jacques Garnerin worked with his older brother Jean-Baptiste-Olivier Garnerin on most of his aeronautical feats. Garnerin made his first frameless parachute descent on 22 October 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]

Aerial descents were also made by Garnerin in England with one particularly memorable descent happening during the Peace Amiens that brought Madame Tussaud to England and sent Eliza de Fueillide to France on business. Garnerin’s demonstration happened on 21 September 1802 at St. George’s Parade on North Audley Street in London. Excitement related to the event was palpable and the Morning Post 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 André-Jacques Garnerin ascended for about eight minutes with the Morning Post stating:

“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 André-Jacques 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]

André-Jacques Garnerin descending in a parachute. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Unfortunately, because the parachute opened so quickly, it began to oscillate violently. The car, which was suspended 20 feet below the parachute, seemed to be falling horizontally at times. The Morning Post 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]

André-Jacques Garnerin was luckily not thrown out. 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 of classes — rushed and leaped over ditches and mud to get to the scene. Everyone was expecting the worse and although Garnerin was not dead he did unfortunately sustain some injuries because according to The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge:

“[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. According to a report by the Morning Post:

“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]

André-Jacques Garnerin also had a female student named Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse. They married and like him she was a parachutist and a balloonist. She first flew on 10 November 1798 and on 12 October 1799 was the first woman to parachute from an altitude of 900 meters. The idea of a woman flying in the clouds and jumping from a balloon made headlines when crowds came out to witness in August 1802 what was described as the “wonders of aerostation.” According to the Derby Mercury:

“That man, who boldly steers a frail bark through the trackless ocean, and remains undaunted amidst scenes of carnage, should venture into the regions of the atmosphere, is not perhaps very surprising; but who could have expected that the fair sex, who are so unaccustomed to hazardous enterprize, and who shrink from the very idea of danger, would ever have mounted from the earth, and given themselves to the mercy of the winds? So much female boldness had rarely hitherto been displayed in England, but Madame Garnerin, resolving to share the perils of her husband, announced that she was determined to accompany him in the aerial voyage he was to make yesterday evening.”[12]

André-Jacques Garnerin - his wife's ascent

Ascent of Madame Garnerin on 28 March 1802. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The spot where the perilous event took place was Vauxhall Gardens. The gardens had opened at four in the morning so that by seven it was filled with enough people to cause Garnerin and his wife to ascend into the clear skies that were calm and serene. To make the ascent a forty feet circular stage had been constructed on which the empty balloon had been placed. It was then filled with “inflammable air” so that by six o’clock the silk of the balloon was fully swollen and ready for lift off. According to the Derby Mercury:

“Precisely at seven M. Garnerin ascended the stage with Madame Garnerin under his arm. The lady smiled … and everyone was struck with her charms. Madame Garnerin is rather low in stature, and of a slender form … She does not seem to be above twenty-two, and more vivacity and sweetness was never seen in any countenance. … Every thing being ready, Madame Garnerin stepped into the boat. Mr. Glassford, a gentleman who engaged to be of this atmospheric party, sat down opposite to her, and Plainurus took his station in the middle. The company then gave three cheers, and those employed to keep down the balloon let go their hold.”[13]

Several issues returned the balloon to the ground but all the while it was reported that Madame Garnerin remained cool. At last the balloon rose and drifted off in a northerly direction. In this instance, Garnerin did not descend in his parachute. However, he had taken a cat up and let her go from a great height. She “fell with great velocity, but when the spokes of the umbrella were fully extended the descent was easy and gradual.”[14] Garnerin later reported:

“I launched a cat with a parachute, in miniature, which encompassed a column of air 38 inches and a half in its basis. The descent was gradual, and the cat fell, with his little vehicle, in the garden of a man who insists on receiving three guineas for indemnification of the trespass committed by poor puss, or at least his picture with the parachute.”[15]

In its flight the balloon passed over Westminster Abbey, the Green Park, Grosvenor Square, and Paddington. It landed safely at Frogmore Place near Hampstead. All those on board then returned to Vauxhall Gardens where Madame Garnerin was received with “the greatest enthusiasm” and many people asked her questions about her flight. In addition, people remarked that her flight “seemed only to have had the effect of heightening the bloom of her complexion.”[16]

Although André-Jacques Garnerin conducted many hair raising feats in his parachute and balloon, it was not in the air that he died. He died in a construction accident when he was hit by a wood beam while making a balloon in Paris on 18 August 1823. A few details of the incident were provided by the Sheffield Independent:

“M. Garnerin, the aeronaut, died a few days ago, in Paris. About a week before, he had a sudden stroke of apoplexy in the Theatre du Jardin Beaujon, in consequence of which he let go the rope of the curtain, which fell on his head and severely wounded him. From the effects of this blow he never recovered.”[17]

André-Jacques Garnerin

André-Jacques Garnerin. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.


  • [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.
  • [12] “Monsieur and Madame Garnerin,” in Derby Mercury, 12 August 1802, p. 3.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] “M. Garnerin’s Account,” in Derby Mercury, 12 August 1802, p. 3.
  • [16] “Monsieur and Madame Garnerin,” p. 3.
  • [17] M. Garnerin, The Aeronaut, in Sheffield Independent, 13 September 1823 , p. 4.

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  1. flo stanton on January 29, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    I write a newsletter on famous people and found your article while researching Garnerin for January 31 birthdays. Fascinating! thank you.

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