FYI: Who invented the parachute and who did the first test?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:26am

According to, there were 57 fatalities among skydivers globally last year and 69 in 2004. Taking into account the number of jumps made, these statistics derive from a reasonably safe sport, but how did the equipment that would facilitate the seemingly insane desire to jump into nothingness from a perfectly good plane come to be?

Unfortunately, the earliest references to those who mucked about with parachutes don't name names. A few medieval documents mention the use of parachute-like devices to allow a person to fall (somewhat) safely from a height, but it is not until the exploits of the intrepid Armen Firman that we can identify a specific parachuting daredevil from yesteryear - albeit an accidental one.

Inventors are a reckless bunch by nature and Firman, a Moor, was attempting to fly when he stumbled on his primitive parachute in AD852. He wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from a tower in Cordoba, Spain, intending to use the garment as wings with which he could glide. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the garment slowed his fall sufficiently to ensure he sustained only minor injuries.

The first known test of a purpose-made parachute was carried out in 1617 by Croatian inventor Faust Vraneiae, who had been working on his canopy - adapted from a Leonardo da Vinci sketch - as early as 1595. Vraneiae tested his invention, known as homo volans (flying man), by jumping off towers in Venice.

The parachute was reinvented in 1783 by Frenchman Sebastien Lenormand, the man who coined the word 'parachute' while demonstrating the device's principle. Compatriot Jean Pierre Blanchard was probably the first person to use a parachute in an emergency, escaping from a ruptured hot-air balloon by using one in 1793.

During the 19th century, parachute use was generally confined to carnivals and daredevil acts. Acrobats would perform stunts on a trapeze bar suspended from a parachute descending from a hot-air balloon. The first known fatality occurred in London in 1837, when inventor Robert Cocking fell to his death.

In 1890, Germans Paul Letteman and Kathchen Paulus invented the method of packing the parachute in a knapsack to be worn on the back, an idea expanded by Russian actor Gleb Kotelnikov in 1908, when he invented the RK1. Existing parachutes were too bulky for aircraft cockpits but Kotelnikov, recalling how an actress friend had taken out a giant silk shawl from a tiny bag, had a brainwave. The RK1 was made of lightweight silk and tucked inside a small backpack.

The first jump from a flying aeroplane has been claimed by two Americans: Grant Morton and army Captain Albert Berry. In 1912, Morton jumped with a silk parachute folded in his arms, while Captain Berry's parachute had a trapeze bar for him to hold.

The first freefall jump was made by Georgia 'Tiny' Broadwick in 1914, much to the disbelief of the United States military, who assumed the human body could not tolerate freefall for more than a few seconds before blacking out. The sceptics were convinced in 1919 by Leslie Irvin and Floyd Smith, who demonstrated freefall jumps at Wright Field, Ohio, and developed the ripcord.

The first world war hastened the acceptance of the parachute - balloon-based observers were kitted out with canopies but pilots were denied them; it was thought they would bail out needlessly under fire - and, in the decades since, the device stumbled upon by a daring Moor has saved the lives of countless aviators while tempting many a thrill-seeker to their downfall.