Monday, August 29, 2005

Who The Hell Tested The First Parachute?

According to Wikipedia:

"A few medieval documents record the use of parachute-like devices to allow a person to fall (somewhat) safely from a height. In 852, an Andalusian daredevil named Armen Firman jumped from a tower in Cordoba using a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts to arrest his fall, sustaining only minor injuries. In 1178, another Muslim attempted a similar feat in Constantinople, but he broke several bones and later died of his injuries. According to Joseph Needham there were working parachutes in China as early as the twelfth century.

Leonardo da Vinci sketched a parachute while he was living in Milan around 1485. However, the idea of the parachute may not have originated with him: the historian Lynn White has discovered an anonymous Italian manuscript from about 1470 that depicts two designs for a parachute, one of which is very similar to da Vinci's. The first known test of such a parachute was made in 1617 in Venice by the Croatian inventor Faust Vrančić."

Two things leap out here - the word "injuries" turning up shortly after the first couple of goes, and the fact that, although Leonardo da Vinci may have sketched a parachute, there is no record of him strapping on a makeshift prototype and hurling himself off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This is why he is still remembered as a genius, while history does not record the name of our unfortunate Constantinople wannabe. I like to think of him as Jumpy McDoomed.

Actually, this started as a straight stand-up rhetorical question. I had visions of some mad inventor embarrassing himself and his wife: "Is that your husband on the roof, Mrs Parachute?" "Oh, no, not again - Bob! Come down! And what have you done the curtains?" Wheeeeeeeeeeee! THUMP.

Looking it up, though, was rather fun. Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated it as a way of 'disembarking' (seems a rather downbeat term for defying the laws of God, but there you go) from a hot air balloon. I thought I had my man, until I read on to discover that he used his dog in the demonstrations. No fool he. He didn't actually use one himself until his balloon ruptured one day 8 years later and he needed it to escape. That, to me, is key: needing to escape from something. That's when a parachute should be considered an option, not when you're wondering if there might be some way of getting down from the top of a lighthouse that's faster and more dangerous than the stairs, or when you want to send kids with leukaemia to Disneyland but have become bored of sponsored runs.

Anyway, it seems that, whoever the first human was to test a parachute, the first dog was almost certainly Jean-Pierre Blanchard's hapless hound. Wikipedia doesn't give his or her name, but 1785 is a lot of dog years ago so we can be fairly sure he or she is no longer with us. Still, our thoughts are with you, proud predecessor to Laika - you paved the way for dozens of animals to break barriers in aeronautics. Whether they wanted to or not.