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The History of Parachutes

The earliest known parachute design came from none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched a pyramidal “tent roof” design in the 1470s. (Interestingly, modern builders brought his design to life and proved that it works.) Roughly 150 years later, Venetian Fausto Veranzio created his own sketch called the Flying Man but changed the shape of the canopy to create more drag. In 1783, Frenchman Louis-Sebastien Lenormand invented and tested "le parachute," and shortly after, French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard created the first silk parachute, which he successfully used to safely get down to the ground when his hot-air balloon ruptured in 1793. Soon after, Andre-Jacques Garnerin performed a stunt with a parachute-like object; French astronomer Jerome Lalandes witnessed Garnerin's wild, spinning descent and suggested cutting a small hole near the canopy’s apex to stop the violent oscillations. After Garnerin successfully tried it, the vented parachute became the standard. However, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the modern parachute truly took shape, when Charles Broadwick, Solomon Lee Van Meter, Jr., Leslie Irvin, Albert Leo Stevens, and Gleb Kotelnikov all separately created variations of a chute that folded into a personal backpack, with connecting ropes and personal ripcords. In 1914, daredevil Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick, Charles' adopted daughter, became the first parachutist to freefall and release her own chute. (Notably, braking parachutes were created by Russian invented Gleb Yevgeniyevich Kotelnikov two years earlier, in 1912.) Interestingly, it took the military a while to embrace parachutes, but they quickly became a critical part of battle tactics during World War II and later became hugely important for cargo drops. In the 1960s, Domina Jalbert, a kite-maker, invented the parafoil or ram-air parachute, which could be steered more easily. Later, NASA developed jumbo drogue and descent chutes for their various projects. And of course, parachutes remain an important item to this day. In fact, in recent years, the military has been transitioning from round to square parachutes such as the T-11 chutes, which have been shown to decrease spinning and slow the rate of descent.

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