The Stage is Set
The idea for a parachute started with Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century. He sketched a man sized parachute (with man in mind) even though no one had ever flown. He visualized it as a tool to escape from tall buildings and structures. The dimensions he calculated as necessary to safely land a person 300 years before a parachute was ever used are very close to the ones used today.
In 1785, a French balloonist named Pierre Blanchard used a pet dog for his first idea of a parachute and dropped the dog several hundred feet, the dog ran off with the parachute and was never seen again.
In the 1800s, acrobats were dropping from balloons that resembled a parachute and a trapeze, they did this to liven up their act, because balloons got boring after awhile and they needed something else to keep the crowds interest. People watched mostly hoping to see a fatality (some things never change.)
The parachutes were rigid with stiffening rods to maintain their shape and tied to the bottom of the balloons, when it came time to jump a helper would cut the rope and they would ascend in their particular contraption.
The Sky’s the Limit
It was an era of do it yourself designs; some worked and some didn’t . The ones that didn’t were the unlucky ones (this could be considered an understatement.) The Wright brothers finally got one to fly and it has been “the sky’s the limit” ever since.
Now the interest in (and need for) parachutes really took off. One of the first parachutes was invented in 1837 by a man named Robert Cocking. Cocking developed a parachute that looked like an upside down umbrella. He felt being upside down it would control oscillations (to bad he didn’t know about an apex hole.) He demonstrated it in 1837 in England. He was suspended from a balloon named Nassau, and piloted by Charles Green, who cut him loose.
The canopy was covered with linen and used stiffeners made of thin metal tubes to retain it’s shape, the only trouble was it weighed 223 pounds . It worked fine at first, but the stiffening tubes started to give way , then a hole developed in the canopy, then it collapsed leading to the first parachute fatality).
After that England’s interest in parachutes declined, but continued in America and Europe.
In 1884, the Baldwin Brothers developed a parachute similar to the one used today, it had no stiffeners , just a fabric canopy that was folded and stuffed into a soft container. The canopy was not attached to the jumpers but to the balloons rigging and a harness was worn by the jumpers and attached to the chute, it was several years in development before they had a full size model and was first tested from 3000 ft, instead of being guinea pigs they used sand bags instead for the first drop, the parachute worked perfectly and they considered it a success.
They decided to demonstrate it publicly, and sold tickets for the event at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Cal. on Jan. 30,1887. Thomas Baldwin (the younger brother) got elected for the task. The brothers took the balloon to 5,000 ft. before a sellout crowd.
Tom jumped and the chute worked perfectly. It opened within five seconds and he drifted slowly to the ground, landing safely.