by Jim Bates
"Parachutes -- Wondrous Devices!" will bring to readers diverse and
wide-ranging information about parachutes, parachuting, and parachutists.
The columns will be for those who want to know about parachutes -- how
they came to be; their many uses, some of them truly extraordinary (e.g.,
mine breaks; steeplejack safety); lore; history, military applications
(paratroops, HALO, HAHO, LALO; LAPES; guided cargo delivery; midair
retrieval systems, both personnel and cargo); parachute forces of nations
the world over; NASA's satellite rocket booster (SRB) recovery parachutes
and refurbishment; new developments; ideas that did not work; what's in
the future; unusual emergency jump stories (experiences of Caterpillar
Club members); ejection systems (military and civilian aerobatic); world
parachuting records; safety news; parachute rigging; how chutes work; why
chutes sometimes don't work (rigging/packing/usage errors); wartime
uses; sport parachuting/skydiving; slope soaring/paragliding; powered
parachuting; fixed object/ B.A.S.E.-jumping; parachutes in general aviation;
parachuting in the movies; parachute postage stamps for collectors; use of
rescue parachutes to save hang gliders, ultralight aircraft, and Cessna
planes (and their passengers, as well); survival with a parachute, U.S.
smokejumpers (and their history of more than 65 years); parachuting as a
national sport in the 1930s; air/sea rescue by PJs (parajumpers of the
USAF); large sea anchors, parachute patents (abstracts and full patents);
notable people in parachuting; parachute humor; book reviews; oddities;
things you probably won't find elsewhere; in all, a vast potpourrii of
information about that wondrous device, the parachute.
Leonardo Da Vinci Had a Safety Idea --
but He Didn't Call it a Parachute
In the 15th century Leonardo Da Vinci -- sculptor, painter ("La Gioconda,"
the half-smiling Mona Lisa"), scientist, engineer, designer and builder of
many clever devices that served many purposes -- was renowned for his
brilliant mind and prolific artistic and scientific output. It's a reasonable
certainty, knowing of his genius for innovation and resolving problems,
that he thought of humans rising into the sky and soaring as birds did. And
he must have understood that an airborne creature also might fall and be
injured, even killed. Perhaps he envisioned some parachute-like device for
the safety of those adventurous high-rising souls, but there is nothing on
record revealing that concept as his first real safety intent -- or even a
later intention, for that matter.
His original idea was apparently meant to be a life-saving device for
people to use to rescue themselves from tall buildings that were on fire
and there was no other means of escaping.
His notebook looked somewhat like a modern parachute during use while
descending. And according to his written notes, modern engineers concede
that, as clumsy-looking as it was, it would have worked acceptably, in
theory. Its efficiency and ease-of-use, though, are doubtful.
But Da Vinci never took his idea beyond the drawing board. A drawing said
to be from his personal notebook has also been shown in various other
sketch forms, but no record exists that a working model was ever built,
nor has it been documented that a "jump" of any other form of descent was
ever made, nor was there ever even an unsubstantiated rumor to that
He apparently thought certain that it would have worked and busied
himself with other ideas and inventions. Thus, based on his brief
commentary and a rudimentary sketch, Leonard Da Vinci was awarded yet
another credit by later admirers -- "father of the parachute."
About a century later, another Italian, Fausto Veranzio, said to be an
architect of Venice (but also said to be a Hungarian mathematician),
published Machinae Nova, a book about new devices of his design. In the
book was an engraving titled "Homo Volans" ("Flying Man"), and it seems to
be the first clearly printed, well defined depiction of a parachute-like
device in use, showing a man descending from a tower, with four lines
secured to the man's body to form a harness of sorts, with the upper part
of the lines knotted to the framework corners of an oblong, horizontal
Like his countryman's concept, Veranzio's seems to have remained an idea
only. Though his idea was greatly publicized, no evidence has been found
that there ever was a homo volans of his of any other time who tested and
proved Veranzio's plan.
It would be another 300 years before anyone made what was considered to
be an actual parachute descent, and well before the advent of even basic
It would not be until the early part of the 20th century, when flight
became a greater part of human activity, that parachutes became an
accepted aviation safety device.
Parachute -- the Word
The background of the now common word parachute is murky and no date
can be determined for its coining. But reasonable explanation is
Parachute is said to have come into being by putting together the prefix
"para" and the noun "chute." Some language analysts say the whole word is a
blend of two French terms; others say the prefix is Italian and became
combined with the French noun for the modern word. Since both tongues are
"romance" languages, and both prefixes date back to an ancient Greek prefix
with several definitions, one of them similar to the meaning of both later
prefixes, it seems to make little difference who gets credit.
However, it is confusing. Because there are varying descriptions, the
following is meant to clear the matter. In the ancient Greek language there
was a prefix "para" that had several usages, including "against." That
prefix is the basis for the Italian "parare," "to ward off," from Latin
"parare," a combining word form meaning "a thing that protects from."
The French prefix "para" means "protect against" or "shelter from" as used in
parasol ("protect against"/"shelter from" and "sun"). The French noun chute"
is based on the Old French word "cheute," meaning a fall, or a declivity
(downward slope, or descent); but the term was meant to describe a means
by which objects moved from a higher to a lower level, as with water
conduits, or coal chutes to move fuel from a street level into a cellar.
However, later users decided the fall was also in the sense of one falling
from a height.
Who actually coined the new word parachute is lost in history, but it
certainly seems that someone of France is the likely choice because of the
extensive role of the French in building hot air balloons in the 18th century
and making many ascents. Balloon-making and flying were trial-and-error
ventures, so it was only a matter of time before there were in-flight
failures. Then a search began to produce something that would protect
against an injurious (or fatal) fall. The stopgap measure of adding cushions
or springs on the bottom of the passenger basket just did not work well
That something needed a name and parachute came into usage.
Learn About the World of Parachutes
Some columns will be devoted to a single item of special interest or
importance; or an article will present a variety of information, answer
specific questions presented by readers, explain a technical matter, detail
a variety of procedures, relate history or lore, provide tips and cautions
and important warnings.
All in all, readers will be able to learn about a major adjunct of aviation
that has a history predating heavier-than-air flight.
The author can be contacted via e-mail: ParaHistry@aol.com
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This section is meant as an educational tool. If there are any topics of interest you wish to
see here or are learning in school/college or wish to comment on the content please email
either the author, Jim Bates, or Aero.com with your input.