Tap to Read ➤

History of Parachutes

Rohini Mohan
We all know what parachutes are and what they are used for. What most of us do not know about, is the actual history of parachutes, and how they have evolved over the ages.
Parachutes have been in use since the end of the 18th century. The word 'parachute' has been derived from the French word para, which means to protect against, and the word chute, which means to fall. Today, the parachute is used for ejecting from a burning fighter jet, and other military aircraft.
It is used for landing emergency goods, such as food, and medications, to inaccessible areas like rainforests, deserts, oceans, and high altitude terrains. They are used for reducing the landing pace of bombs, thereby giving more time for the aircraft to evacuate itself from that air zone.
Parachutes have found their way into space technology as well, and are used for bringing space capsules safely back onto land. It is also used for adventure sports. This story will discuss the history of parachutes, and how they have undergone modifications over the centuries.

The Evolution of Parachutes Over the Ages

Leonardo da Vinci

It was somewhere in between 1483 and 1485, that the legendary Leonardo da Vinci came up with the initial concept of the parachute. His drew a sketch of a pyramid-shaped tent-like structure made of cloth, which was intended to evacuate people from high buildings.
What is amazing about this sketch is the fact that, it shows a man being suspended by four suspension wires which are attached to the tent! However, this concept was never executed and remained a sketch for a very long time.
Nonetheless, it was this great man who gave us the initial idea as to how a parachute works, and whether the mechanism could actually be tested upon and put into use! This is the reason why Leonardo da Vinci has been deemed as 'The Father of the Parachute'.

Paolo Guidotti

In 1590, Guidotti attempted to fly in actuality, and is believed to be the first man to make the first practical attempt at testing the concept of flying. He was an artist and was an enthusiast for inventions. He is believed to have made a contraption, taking inspiration from Da Vinci. However, he made something which was in no way similar to the sketch.
His contraption had wings made up of whale bones, which had been wound with feathers. He jumped off a building and ended up flying for a few seconds, before crashing onto the roof of a house. He broke his leg in the process, and never tried to experiment further with the concept. Nonetheless, his attempt is still highly regarded.

Fausto Veranzio - The Flying Man

In 1617, Fausto Veranzio took inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci's conceptual design, and created a rigid framed parachute using cloth.
He called it the Homos Volans, which meant, The Flying Man. Veranzio is considered to be the first man to have built the first ever model of the parachute and actually fly it. He was 61 years old when he tested his parachute, and jumped off from the St. Mark Campanile of Venice. However, this event was not made aware to the people until many years later.

Sebastian Lenormand

In 1783, this French physicist and inventor successfully managed to land on the ground using a 14 foot diametric parachute. His parachute was made of cloth and light wooden frames. He jumped off the Montpellier Observatory in France. His concept of the design of the invention was to be made into a mechanism, which could help evacuate people from tall burning buildings.

De Montgolfier Brothers - Hot Air Balloon

The two brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier invented the world's first hot air balloon in 1782, and named it as the Montgolfière.
They had to go through some failed attempts in order to finally lift off successfully. They decided to give a public demonstration of their claims of having invented an actual flying machine. This demonstration took place in Annonay, France, on June 5, 1783 and was a success.

Jérôme Lalande - Parachute's Vent

Jacques-André Garnerin made his first successful jump in 1797. He used a non-rigid framed parachute and jumped off from a hydrogen balloon from 8000 feet. It was after this jump that the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande suggested introducing a few changes.
This included, making small holes at the top of the parachute's canopy. This change is still in use today, and is called the parachute's vent, which is meant to prevent oscillations while in mid-air and while landing.

Käthe Paulus - Folded Exhibition Type

In 1890, Kathe was deemed as the first female professional parachutist ever. She preferred using the folded exhibition type parachute, which required that its 'break cords' be manually cut with a knife.

Charles Broadwick - The Pack on the Aviator

Charles Broadwick was the pioneer American designer who made the parachute design in 1906, which was meant to be worn as a jacket, much like the lifesaving jackets of today. He called his design the 'The Pack on the Aviator'.
The parachute was automatic because its break cords broke as soon as one jumped from the aircraft. The break cords were expected to break as soon as the flier jumped off the plane and came in contact with high-speed, and defied gravity. However, this system was unpredictable.

Gleb Yevgeniyevich Kotelnikov - The Knapsack Parachute

In 1911, this Russian inventor designed the knapsack parachute, which was very similar to the pack design by Charles Broadwick. The knapsack was used sparingly in 1914, during the World War I. Gleb kept improving his designs by adding finer features, which made him a significant member of parachute designing.

Use in Warfare - Pack on the Back

The use of parachutes was prohibited until the late years of World War I. Nonetheless, some pilots used them during 1916 onwards, without official permission in order to save their lives. The reason being that once the plane was beyond control, it seemed a waste to let themselves die.
The air services soon realized that it was better to lose a few planes than to lose well-trained and excellent pilots. It was in 1918 that the US Air Force formed its first Parachute Section at the Wilbur Wright Field.
It was then that, J. Floyd Smith and some others suggested the use of the 'Pack on the Back', which had the pulling cord or ring. It used a 30 feet diameter silk canopy. In 1919, Leslie Irvin made the first jump using this mechanism (Model A), and made a successful landing after free-falling from 1,500 feet at 80 miles per hour.
After which, the Irving Air Chute Company was formed. The 'model A' evolved into model 'S' and was called the 'C-9' canopy, which stayed in the military until many years later.

Knacke and Madelung - Ribbon Parachute

They introduced parachutes which could withstand high-speed, and altitude! This was the onset for the modern-day parachutes, which began its process from 1930 onwards. The ribbon based parachute was created during this period, which was supposed to reduce the speed of heavy objects, so that it landed with low impact and low damage.
For the first time, the parachute was used for reducing the landing speed of aircraft in 1937, for which the Germans are to be given credit. This technique successfully slowed down the deceleration level of the aircraft, and did not interrupt with the momentum or movement of the craft.
This new technology had retractable dive brakes, which ensured higher efficiency during landing. The ring-slot parachute design was invented in 1951, so as to replace the ribbon parachute for aircraft, and is still in use today, with modern changes having been introduced.

Domina Jalbert - Parafoil Ram-Air Parachute

This parachute has the unique design with its rectangular arc like shape. It is also the very first design which allowed the flier to steer his parachute, much like hand gliders.
However, its use in military is very limited because it requires a lot of air space to flare out completely, and is also very noticeable, making it an easy target during combat missions. The military tactics require less conspicuous designs, and therefore prefer the conventional designs over the parafoil.
The history of parachutes began with the legendary Leonardo Da Vinci's initial design of the parachute. Ironically, his design still ended up being practical. The design was made into an actual parachute and was successfully flown by Adrian Nicholas of Britain in 2000.