October 22, 1797 — André-Jacques Garnerin made the first documented parachute jump on this day, landing safely after exiting a balloon 3,000ft above a park in Paris.
It is said that he came up with the idea while serving in the French army and spending two years as a prisoner after being captured during hostilities against England. He was confined at a prison in Hungary where the high ramparts mocked the notion of any escape attempt but could have sparked the idea of a parachute in Garnerin's brain.
Born in Paris in 1769, Garnerin studied physics as a young man and 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 had a fascination for ballooning and recommended its use for military purposes.
But in 1797 he found a new use for it and crowds gathered at the Parc Monceau in Paris to witness the first-ever parachute jump.
He was trusting his life to a canopy 23ft in diameter that had no rigid frame and was attached to a basket with suspension ropes.
Garnerin attached the "parachute" to a hydrogen balloon and ascended to an altitude of 3,200 feet before starting to cut the rope that connected his contraption to the balloon.
He later recalled the enormity of this moment: “I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and earth and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race.”
After cutting the "parachute" loose, it inflated and all seemed well – but then it began to oscillate violently, which terrified many spectators below. Garnerin landed shaken but unhurt half a mile from the balloon's takeoff site.
This problem of wild swings on descent was solved in 1804 by French scientist Joseph Lelandes who introduced a vent in the centre of the canopy to eliminate violent oscillations.
Meanwhile, Garnerin pressed ahead with his daring pursuits and – ever the showman – announced in 1798 that on his next flight he would take with him a woman passenger. This caused much excitement in the press but outrage among officials of the Central Bureau of Police who issued an injunction against him forbidding the plan.
It seems they were worried about the effect that reduced air pressure might have on a female body, which they described as "delicate." Why, she might even become unconscious while alone up there in the basket with Garnerin. And that, of course raised all sorts of questions besides the moral implications of the two flying in such close proximity in the first place.
Garnerin appealed to the Minister of the Interior and to the Minister of Police. They decided that the ban should be lifted on the grounds that "there was no more scandal in seeing two people of different gender ascend in a balloon than it is to see them jump into a carriage."
All went well and Garnerin became a celebrity demonstrating his parachuting skills across Europe. A popular rhyme at the time went:
Bold Garnerin went up
Which increased his Repute
And came safe to earth
In his Grand Parachute.
His future wife Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse became the first female parachutist without a guide. In 1815 Garnerin’s niece Élise began a career as a parachutist and went on to perform 39 parachute jumps.
Passionate to the last about his hobby, Garnerin was killed in 1823 when he was hit by a beam while working on his balloon equipment. He was only 54 years old.
Published: October 16, 2018