Vol. 15
January Issue
Year 2014

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 15 - January Issue - Year 2014
Drop like a Rock - or Not?

Homo Volans - Fausto Veranzio 1616

Gleb Kotelnikov and his knapsack parachute

The elderly man's gray hair quivered as he peered cautiously over the edge of the stone parapet. From this height at the top of the bell tower, it seemed like a mighty long drop. What had he gotten himself into? For the umpteenth time, he checked the wooden frame dangling from a support over his head and tugged at the leather straps holding the whole contraption together. The heavy cloth, more suitable for sails on a ship rather than for this experiment, hung loosely from the square wooden frame and kept the sunlight from warming his face. Would he drop like a rock? Taking one last look around him and muttering a silent prayer to long-deceased relatives, the man stepped up on the parapet and jumped.

It is believed that the first parachutes were developed in China in the twelfth century, although no drawings or direct reports have survived, apart from some paintings with implausible jumps made with parasols. The oldest existent drawing of something resembling a parachute appears in an anonymous document from Italy dating from the late fifteenth century. In this drawing, the figure of a man is dangling from a wooden cross bar under a conical cloth canopy. However, the small size of the canopy makes it doubtful whether this device could have actually slowed down the fall of a human body. A few years later, Leonardo da Vinci drew something more credible from a technical point of view, with a square wooden frame holding open the base of a pyramidal canopy. Rather than having the passenger holding on to the wooden frame as in the anonymous drawing, Leonardo envisioned four lines dangling from the corners of the frame and joined together with a knot, which the passenger would clasp in his hands. For many centuries, however, it was not known whether Leonardo's design actually worked, as it appears that the Renaissance genius never built or tested his invention.

Although disputed by some historical sources, it seems that a Venetian inventor called Fausto Veranzio made the first-ever parachute jump. Fausto had studied Leonardo's drawing and substituted the pyramidal canopy with a square cloth that would bulge like a ship's sail during the fall. In 1616 he published a book on mechanics entitled Machinae Novae (New Machines), in which he included a drawing of a man testing a parachute by jumping from a bell tower in Venice. This test reputedly was carried out by Fausto himself in 1617 at the ripe age of sixty-five and the drawing in his book was entitled Homo Volans (Flying Man).

One of the reasons that prevented active development of parachute technology was the lack of practical applications. In 1783 the French inventor Sebastian Lenormand made the first publicly-recorded parachute jump from a tower in Montpelier and proposed his device as a means of escaping from burning buildings. However, with the development of the hot air balloon at the end of the eighteenth century, parachutes became life-saving devices that could safely help people escape from falling balloons. By that time the clumsy wooden frame of earlier designs had been replaced by gondola baskets attached to many lines hanging from the rim of a circular canopy.

Attention soon focused on ways of making the parachute lighter, foldable and more closely tied to the person using it. Silk replaced linen. Some types required the parachutist to simply hold the folded canopy in his or her arms and release it during the drop. In October 1797, Jacques-Andr� Garnerin became the first genuine parachutist by jumping with a parachute without a rigid frame from a balloon over London. During Garnerin's several balloon jumps from relatively-high altitudes, it was observed that severe oscillations were often induced in the canopy. A French astronomer named Lalandes suggested that Garnerin cut a small hole near the apex of the canopy to inhibit the oscillations. This modification, now applied in modern parachutes, is known as the vent. In 1802 Garnerin went on to cross the English Channel in a balloon and landed in England by parachute.

Progress continued steadily during the nineteenth century and by the beginning of the twentieth century the parachute had assumed the form and composition that are known today. After witnessing the death of a pilot during an airshow in St. Petersburg, the Russian actor Gleb Kotelnikov turned himself into an inventor and developed the world's first knapsack parachute in 1911. Quicker and more reliable parachute opening systems were developed for military pilots during World War One.

For the record, in July 2000 a British skydiver successfully tested a parachute built strictly according to Leonardo da Vinci's design, conceived over five hundred years earlier.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN

Author: Giovanni Gregorat