Visitors to the Eiffel Tower on the morning of February 4, 1912, were greeted by an unusual sight. A crowd at the base was looking up at someone standing on the edge of the first platform; he was wearing a wide black cloak with a sort of large silk cowl that reached over his head. He turned from side to side, hesitated for a moment, then leaned forward and lept into the void. The crowd gasped.
The man who jumped from the tower that day was Franz Reichelt, originally from Austria. He was 33 years old, unmarried, and was a tailor for both men and women in Paris. He was also an inventor, and he had invented something he called a 'parachute'. His design was comprised of two parts: a body suit, which fit much like regular clothing, and a large silk bag-like device which folded over his back and gave him a look somewhat like a cobra. Inside the parachute was a rudimentary steering system of belts and small rods, which he could control via his body movements.
The Prefecture of Police had granted Reichelt permission to test his parachute using mannequins, but not for Reichelt to jump himself. Reichelt nominally agreed, but he was so confident in his invention that he defied the police orders and arrived dressed for the jump himself. After some convincing, and a public announcement by the Police Prefect denying that a live jump had been allowed, Reichelt, dressed in his billowing parachute coat, stepped out onto the ledge of the first platform of the Tower, about 187 feet in the air. It was a few minutes after 8 on a February morning, and the wind blowing in off the Seine River made the cold morning even chillier. Reichelt stood for a few moments, presumably building up the courage to take the jump; for a moment he looked as if he were going to step down, until finally he spread his arms wide in a cruciform pose, leaned forward, and lept.
The parachute did absolutely nothing and he dropped like a stone. The fabric of the cloak, whipped about by the winds, completely enshrouded him, and Reichelt hit the frozen ground face-first. Onlookers raced up to him, but by the time they reached him, he was already dead. After the police carried away his body, other onlookers casually walked around the landing zone; some stopped to measure the depth of the impact crater. Apparently, Reichelt made an impression a little over 15 centimeters in depth.
It is easy to dismiss Reichelt as a foolhardy stooge, but within two years, parachutes were being demonstrated across the world, whether hand-held, strapped to the user's back, or being deployed behind a car as a drogue. They were used sparingly in World War One, but in the years since, parachutes have saved countless lives, and Reichelt deserves mention as one of its early experimenters.
Links and Sources:
"L'Inventeur Reichelt S'est Tue Hier" ("The Inventor Reichelt Was Killed Yesterday"), from Le Petit Journal, Paris, France, February 5, 1912.
Lesbros, Dominique, Paris mystérieux et insolite, Boreas, 2005.