The past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in public interest in skydiving as both a sport and recreational activity. Once viewed as a prohibitively dangerous activity for lunatics and thrill-seekers, modern safety standards and copious information available through different media has made parachuting much more accessible. Exactly how did this sport develop?
People have always dreamed of flying, and this has pushed many to do quite foolish and exciting acts. Several countries have legends of people gliding to safety from a high point with the use of a large cloth to slow their descent. Most of the legends involve robbers and thieves, but one notable exception is Emperor Shun of China. He reportedly escaped from a burning tower by tying several large straw hats together.
The Chinese are credited with the invention of the parachute, with records describing the device from as far back as 100 BC. Arabian texts also mention similar apparatus in the 12th century. Parachute-like drawings have been found in the notebooks of several medieval and renaissance inventors and engineers, the most notable among them Da Vinci’s pyramidal sketch from 1485.
Great Grandfathers of Parachuting
Early parachutists jumped from high towers and cliffs, with mostly unfortunate results. Materials and deployment technology was still lacking compared to the benefits enjoyed by modern BASE jumpers. In order to survive a jump using these antiquated parachutes, people had to get higher up. That just wasn’t possible until the Montgolfier brothers had the brilliant idea of hot air balloon flight.
Unsurprisingly, the first official parachute jump was performed by someone from the same country. Frenchman Andr?-Jacques Garnerin invented the frameless parachute (previous incarnations had the cloth held stable by wooden armatures) and performed his pioneering jump from a hot air balloon in 1797. His jumps also paved the way for the invention of the parachute vent to improve stability. Jeanne-Genevi?ve, his wife, is credited as being the first female parachutist, and is reputed to have preferred the gliding parachute.
Jumping from Airplanes
Jumping from balloons became a fixture of carnivals and daredevil acts until the invention of the airplane in 1903. Parachute development had continued with the invention of the harness and the pilot chute in the late 19th century. These innovations proved quite useful to the first plane jumpers, a distinction shared by both Grant Morton and Captain Albert Berry in 1912.
Trusting in a scrap of cloth was still considered a dangerous activity, with the common belief that most people would “black out” because of the speed of descent. Georgia Broadwick silenced the skeptics by performing the first free fall dive in 1914. After World War I, barnstorming became a popular entertainment in America, where parachute diving became a staple of these airplane acts. World War II saw furious military research and development for a better parachute, and these efforts culminated in the successful deployment of paratroops on D-Day in Normandy.
After the war, many of the veterans found that they enjoyed skydiving so much that they started taking it up as a recreational activity. Public knowledge was increased by such popular exhibitions as those by Britain’s Red Devils. This paved the way for further developments in safety and the modern sport enjoyed by millions today.
The sport has branched into many fields including accuracy diving, wingsuit gliding, formation flying, and freestyle air-surfing and skyskiing.