Here’s the Real Story About When the Parachute Was Invented
When Louis-Sébastien Lenormand made the first recorded, successful parachute jump in France in 1783, he was standing on the shoulders of countless men and women who had shared the dream before him. Many other experimenters had tried and failed, and a few may have succeeded without documenting their accomplishments.
Nonetheless, their efforts are part of a tradition of visualizing, designing and trying that has gone on for at least 4,000 years.
Four thousand years? Yes — at least that long. The first historical record of an event involving a parachute-like device is found in Records of the Grand Historian, a collection of biographies curated by Sima Qian, one of China’s foremost historians. Working during the Han Empire (75 BC), Sima recounted the legendary tale of Emperor Shun, who climbed to the top of a granary to avoid his murdering father. His father then set the building on fire. Shun survived the onslaught by grasping two bamboo hats, springing from the roof and floating safely to the ground.
The plot line of this fictional account certainly has no basis in fact. As a legend, however, it provides substantial evidence that the fantasy of the parachute goes back at least 40 centuries. But this collective illusion no doubt reaches back even further. Who can know for sure when the first human held a piece of fabric to the wind on a ridge top and daydreamed of lifting off?
Classic Ancient Design
Leonardo da Vinci certainly had that fantasy and used it and his detailed studies of birds to create the first coherent parachute plans in 1483. His parachute, using a wood frame, sealed linen fabric, and a pyramid-shaped canopy, weighed in at 187 pounds. Skeptics scoffed over the centuries that da Vinci’s design would never fly.
But then in the Year 2000, skydiver Adrian Nichols built a prototype with the identical plans and materials that DaVinci had specified, and used it to descend 8,000 feet over South Africa. He transitioned to his modern skydiving rig at 2,000 feet to complete his descent and commented upon landing that the ancient design rode smoother than many modern parachutes.
There were, of course, many other developments of the parachute along the way. Here are a few of them:
Brief Chronology of Parachute Progress
Sima Qian records and publishes the legend of Emperor Shun.
Leonardo da Vinci renders hisclassic parachute drawings.
Faust Vrancic makes a rumored jump in Venice in a da Vinci-like design.
Louis-Sébastien Lenormand makes the first recorded, successful parachute jump.
Jeanne Pierre Blanchard creates the first foldable, “soft” parachute.
Andrew Garnerin completes the first soft parachute jump.
First harness for parachutes designed by Captain Thomas Baldwin.
Paul Letteman and Kathchen Paulus invent a backpack launch system.
First jumps from an airplane: Grant Morton, Captain Albert Berry.
Gleb Yevgeniyevich Kotelnikov demonstrates the first drogue chute.
Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick: first water landing, freefall and release.
First use of parachutes (and paratroopers) in militaryoperations.
First steerable chute developed by Major Hoffman, US Army Air Service.
Amelia Earhart demo’s new military parachute training tower.
Military parachuting comes home as a “hobby” with troops after WWII.
Domina Jalbert invents the ram-air airfoil parachute/wing combination.
Skydiving and commercial drop zones begin to take hold.
Paragliding takes off, as lower-cost equipment becomes available.
Skydiving soars as tandem training becomes the preferred method.
Skydiver Adrian Nichols proves that da Vinci was right all along.
So da Vinci and Lenormand were early pioneers, but a lot more people than just those two were responsible for the invention and development of the parachute. In addition, there were those millions more who have shared the broader vision — holding up their Chinese hats, making the leap, and floating safely to the ground.