High Original Genius: Charles Broadwick and His Backpack Parachute

Tag: Feature, Gear, Historic, October 2010

High original genius is always ridiculed on its first appearance, most of all by those who have won themselves the highest reputation in working on the established lines. Genius only commands recognition when it has created the taste which is to appreciate it.

—James Anthony Froude

Charles Broadwick was soaring among the clouds long before the Wright brothers ever lifted a wing, skydiving decades before the term was even coined. As the 20th century dawned, the fit and handsome balloon jumper had Americans across the nation craning necks skyward.

With raven hair parted stylishly down the center and his muscular form clad in spangled tights, the young showman didn’t seem to fit the mold of technological innovator. Yet Charles Broadwick was about to conceive a phenomenal device: the backpack parachute. In one auspicious swoop, he would not only up-end the trapeze-and-canopy rig used by balloon jumpers of his generation, but irrevocably change the course of parachute design.

In the early 1900s, pleasure-seekers at resorts and carnivals were captivated by Broadwick’s balloon-and-chute act. The curious crowd would gather around a clearing where the basketless hot-air balloon loomed eight stories high. Meanwhile, Broadwick would carefully inspect the limp-canopied parachute contraption, which was attached to the ropes at the balloon’s base. Like a huge beached squid, the rigged-up parachute stretched long on the ground, measuring about 40 feet from end to end. The canopy was crafted of heavy cotton gores that Broadwick had carefully stitched together to bloom round in the air. A vent in the apex and a four-foot “spreader hoop” suspended near the bottom ensured the cloth would inflate. Suspension lines ran from canopy apron to a concentric ring, below which hung the trapeze bar—the link between rig and parachutist.

Preparations complete, Broadwick would firmly grasp the trapeze and shout, “Let go!” The tethers were released and the balloon shot up, pulling parachute and jumper aloft.

Although otherwise completely dependent on wind and balloon, Broadwick could decide when to exit. Between the balloon’s concentrating ropes and the canopy’s apex hung a cutting mechanism with a long cord that ran straight down through the center of the canopy to the trapeze. With an easy yank on this cord, Broadwick severed the connection between parachute and balloon. The crowd gasped as he plummeted, but as the limp cloth mushroomed, his speed checked, and he floated to earth.

FEATURE201010-13People gather to watch Broadwick prepare for a hot-air-balloon ascension and jump. The trees enclosing the area could prove dangerous to a jumper using an old-fashioned canopy-and-trapeze parachute rig. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
FEATURE201010-14In this photo from the magazine Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, a circa-1903 hot-air balloon jumper ascends under the loose-canopy-and-trapeze rig used before Broadwick's backpack parachute concept came to fruition.

The 1906 Backpack Invention
Balloon jumpers were prone to exaggeration, but in those early days, the feat truly was death-defying—sometimes, even before the jumper reached the sky. A common danger was ascending in an area surrounded by obstacles as the windswept balloon blew horizontally. Dangling 40 feet beneath the balloon, one faced being helplessly slung against buildings or trees, and being seriously injured or even killed.

It was this threat that prompted Broadwick in 1906 to test a practical solution that would prove a turning point in parachute design: He simply placed the canopy and suspension lines into a pack, which he then strapped to his back. Now riding at the very bottom of the balloon’s 12-foot concentration ropes, he would be suspended above most obstacles.

Broadwick’s new configuration necessitated other design and operational modifications. First, everything would have to fit neatly in the pack and be guaranteed to spring out at will. Thus, the canopy was now a lighter-weight cotton, and the once-four-foot spreader was now a backpack-sized 18- to 22-inch bamboo hoop. Connected securely to the pack, the suspension lines were folded carefully among layers of newspaper to prevent tangling and placed inside the pack with the canopy. Broadwick would then bring the flaps of the pack across the folded chute and secure it with thread that was strong enough to hold the parachute in place, but weak enough to rip easily at the right time. Finally, a lightweight cord attached to the top of the canopy snaked out of the pack and connected to the balloon’s base—quite possibly the earliest use of a static line.

Backpack on, Broadwick ascended with the balloon. When ready to exit, depending whether he chose to ascend while tied to the balloon or suspended below it, he would either cut his ties holding him to the balloon or simply drop from the trapeze. Pulled taut, the static line went to work to deploy the parachute. The line extracted the parachute from the pack, then snapped, releasing the canopy and balloon from one another once it had done its job.

In hindsight, Broadwick’s backpack innovation seems like a given. Where else would you wear your parachute but on your back? But it had taken more than 400 years to reach this point in the evolution of the device that thousands of parachutists rely upon today.

The Evolution of an Idea
In the 1470s, an anonymous Italian engineer first sketched a primitive parachute, but it is Leonardo da Vinci’s design of a few years later that prevails in history. Both designs featured rigid, wooden-framed canopies. Visionaries that they were, neither seemed to have tested their decelerator ideas, and it would be another 300 years until parachute development began in earnest.

In 1783, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand fashioned a wicker-seated apparatus with a ribbed, paper-reinforced linen canopy and tested it using domestic animals dropped from a tower. Lenormand introduced not only a round canopy and rigging lines, but also the name of this fantastic device: the parachute.

Parachute science—tested by a variety of reluctant barnyard animals—advanced rapidly once the balloon came along in the 1780s, but it wasn’t until 1797 that André Jacques Garnerin became the first human parachutist. Although the parachute still sported a basket, Garnerin significantly improved the device—adding the apex vent to reduce oscillation and a spreader hoop to increase airflow through the canopy.

The Italians first conceived the parachute and the French first tested it, but it was an American gymnast who further simplified its structure and use, setting the course for a new generation of athletic exhibition jumpers, including the young Broadwick.

Venerable airship pioneer Thomas Baldwin is often credited with having invented the “loose-canopy” parachute as a young man. Certainly, Baldwin advanced parachuting’s popularity, but even Baldwin himself admitted early on that the parachute he first jumped with was someone else’s idea. Extensive research reveals that Baldwin bought that parachute from Charles Leroux, who was already famous for balloon, bridge and building jumps on the east coast of the United States.

Performing widely in the 1880s as a professional gymnast and trapeze artist, Leroux had also been developing a new kind of parachute. It took an athletic jumper to do away with the antiquated ribbed canopy and rider’s basket. This sleeker rig had a loose, cloth canopy with a 6-inch-wide hole in the apex and a 6-foot-wide spreader hoop to ensure airflow. Lightweight ropes connected the skirt of the round canopy to a ring (later, a trapeze), which the jumper would grasp.

In the summer of 1886, two of Leroux’s leaps—from a bridge over Passaic Falls in New Jersey and from the roof of a Philadelphia museum—garnered a good deal of press for the jumper in light-blue tights and satin trunks. But he kept his day job, performing as an acrobat with a traveling vaudeville show. It was in early 1887 during a brief stand in San Francisco that Leroux met up with young Baldwin and veteran balloonist Park Van Tassell. The showmen had been looking for a new gimmick—and found it in Leroux’s parachute.

Within the week, Leroux’s troupe had finished in San Francisco. But Baldwin and Van Tassell were just beginning. After conducting test drops with Leroux’s parachute from the high, dark rafters of the Mechanics’ Pavilion, the two were ready to take it public.

On Sunday, January 30, 1887, Baldwin leapt with the parachute from Van Tassell’s captive balloon above thousands of onlookers in Golden Gate Park. There was no turning back. Baldwin—who soon forgot about partner Van Tassell—was about to turn Leroux’s parachute into a global sensation.

Baldwin was front-page news as he leapt from balloons across the U.S. and then in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, Leroux—no doubt spurred by Baldwin’s instant fame using his invention—left the vaudeville circuit and took his parachute to Europe. From his first jumps, Leroux had promoted his invention as a life-saving device, but it could not help him when, in late 1889, he and his parachute blew into the sea off the coast of present-day Estonia, where he perished. His testament silenced, the innovative jumper faded from parachute history.

Broadwick the ShowmanFEATURE201010-11
Broadwick, too, would come to view his backpack parachute as an aerial life preserver. But while the airplane was still a novelty, his innovation was viewed as just a showman’s foolishness. Broadwick and a steady supply of so-called “Mrs.” Broadwicks continued balloon jumping across the country. In 1908, a petite and spunky 15-year-old nicknamed Tiny joined the act as his “daughter,” consistently garnering press. But when the airplane finally hit its stride, balloons were becoming yesterday’s news. In 1911, Broadwick and Tiny followed the pilots and manufacturers of the air machines to the blue-skied mecca of Southern California.

In January 1912, Broadwick and Tiny were on hand for the third Dominguez International Air Meet, held outside of Los Angeles. Amid motor-powered contests of speed and endurance, Tiny’s low-tech parachute jump from a hot-air balloon created an uproar among the more high-tech aviators. Witnessing the drop, aviation luminary Glenn Curtiss expressed disapproval of such a thing. He noted to a reporter that he instructed his pupils never to jump in an emergency, asserting,“It’s much safer for an operator to remain in his seat.”

Curtiss’ attitude was understandable; after all, no one had yet attempted to parachute from an airplane. But the first jump would happen two months later, when balloon jumper Albert Berry leapt from a biplane 1,500 feet above St. Louis, Missouri. Berry used his old-style trapeze rig, but with the canopy and suspension lines tucked into a large cone-shaped container outside the plane. His jump made news but few converts.

Flying to New York on Pianos
“Cheese cloth protection,” superstar aviator (and Broadwick friend) Lincoln Beachey reportedly called parachutes. “When I decide to become an umbrella pilot,” he was quoted as saying, “they’ll be flying from San Francisco to New York on pianos.” Like too many in his profession, the daredevil pilot would meet an early end, drowning in San Francisco Bay when his wings sheared off in 1915.

But future aviation mogul Glenn Martin saw promise in Broadwick’s parachute—although not necessarily as a safety device. He recognized in Tiny’s headlining jumps a way to earn seed money for his fledgling aviation business, known today as Lockheed Martin. In June 1913, Martin piloted as Tiny, wearing Broadwick’s device, became the first woman to parachute from an airplane.

Tiny’s jumps from Martin’s planes should have brought recognition to Broadwick, but the spotlight instead shone on Martin. Curiously, Broadwick allowed Martin to claim credit for the backpack parachute idea. And—oddly—patent it. Years later, Broadwick set the record straight in a deposition: “It was my own invention, simply an advertising matter of Mr. Martin.” Historians concur, yet Martin would always claim the backpack parachute as his own.

Saving Lives
Novelty, world records and patent appropriation aside, a nobler use for Broadwick’s parachute arose: saving the lives of Allied airmen in Europe.

Prior to the U.S. entering World War I, Broadwick demonstrated his parachute to the Army in a series of jumps at North Island in San Diego. Officers were impressed enough with the “wonderful utility” of the device to buy a couple of samples—but not enough to outfit their airmen with parachutes. Bemoaning Uncle Sam’s lackluster response to Broadwick’s life-saving device, a 1914 editorial began with a quote: “High original genius is always ridiculed on its first appearance.” That sentiment would hold true for the rest of the war. As the U.S. joined the battle in Europe, neither pilots nor brass saw a need for parachutes.

Pilots believed carrying a parachute showed a lack of trust in their flying ability and in the machine itself. Their superiors were simply afraid that parachute-toting pilots would needlessly abandon stricken machines. However, Allied pilots soon changed their minds, especially after witnessing German airmen leaping to safety with their static-line seat-pack parachutes. But the war was over before parachutes could be provided for Allied airmen.

Broadwick’s backpack concept did figure prominently in the development of the military’s first parachute immediately after World War I. A team at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, combined three elements—a pilot chute, Broadwick’s backpack and former balloon jumper Leo Stevens’ ripcord—to create Airplane Parachute Type-A. Successfully tested by a member of the group—Broadwick’s former California protégé, Leslie Irvin—the parachute was put into immediate production.

Broadwick had remained in California during World War I, improving and exhibiting his work. Tiny had married and left jumping. And Broadwick had found someone with whom to share a life both on the ground and in the air. He and his young wife, Ethel, had just settled in San Francisco when personal and professional tragedy struck. In February 1920, as she tested a new parachute design, Ethel’s suspension lines tangled, and she suffered fatal injuries from her fall to Marina Airfield.FEATURE201010-12

After Ethel’s death, the aging inventor rarely made news, but the 1920s saw a flurry of Broadwick patents. These inventions—three of which were parachutes for whole planes—would be the only patents in history bearing his name.

Broadwick kept busy in his workshop in San Francisco but by 1940 had officially retired. A classic example of his work, however, was still soldiering on. As the U.S. headed toward another world war, the Army realized it needed a static-line parachute to drop paratroopers from low altitudes. Having only a freefall parachute on hand, the Army Air Corps dusted off the static-line backpack the inventor had offered 26 years earlier. With some modifications—including a reserve chute—the Army Air Corps quickly produced the T-4 parachute.

Time has improved the technology, but paratroopers today continue to rely on the static-line deployment Broadwick pioneered. “That is where it all started,” comments Ft. Benning Warrant Officer Jeremiah Jones. “He is like the grandfather of paratroopers.”

While the static line is an integral part of the paratrooper’s equipment, it is in recreational parachuting that the essence of Broadwick’s 1906 pack endures. When novice skydivers choose the static-line method for their first jumps, they experience it the way Charles Broadwick originally intended: comfortably, safely and for fun.

It is his backpack concept, however, that transcends all types of jumping. Just about all modern parachute systems retain Broadwick’s “integrated, form-fitting, harness-and-container system nestled on the back,” says USPA Executive Director Ed Scott. Indeed, it’s one of those rare inventions that make it hard to understand why nobody thought of it earlier—and makes it impossible to imagine how it could exist any other way.

When Charles Broadwick died in 1943, he had devoted a life-long career to parachuting—first as a spangled balloon jumper on the carnival circuit, then as a respected innovator in elite aviation circles. Today, Charles Broadwick’s contributions and spirit live on in recreational, military and emergency applications. High original genius might be ridiculed at first, but the really good ideas last forever.

About the Author
Freelance writer Lisa Ritter became interested in Charles Broadwick when she discovered that he had boarded with her great, great aunt in San Francisco throughout the 1920s. She has written about Broadwick and the history of parachuting for Air & Space/Smithsonian Magazine and The Airborne Engineers Journal. She is currently completing a book on the inventor.

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