Leap Year 1912
"It is only by strenuous and hazardous preparation that the aviator can fit himself to his vocation," an early aviation journalist observed. "He needs an extraordinary combination of active energy, courage, decision of purpose, a quick eye, clearness of judgment, the utmost presence of mind and great physical dexterity."
It's unknown if newsreel footage of the jump still exists, but this image of Rodman Law's leap from Liberty's torch remains from the scores of newspapers that carried the news the following day.
Early pilots may have been tough as nails, but their aircraft were as delicate as dragonflies. They were taking to the skies in the motor-powered equivalent of a balsa-wood glider toy. Yet, confident in their machines and abilities, many aviators of 1912 dismissed goggles, most shunned seat belts—and not one carried a parachute. It was a leap year, but flyers had no intention of jumping.
Aviators, noted a reporter in late 1911, “have demonstrated that they possess iron nerves, and probably most of them would not care a fig about going up in the air if danger did not lurk in every wire of the canvas-winged bird that carries them aloft. In fact, one aviator recently remarked that this lack of safety was the fascinating element of flying.” Not so fascinating was the number who had perished. Internationally, 34 pilots had died in 1910, 73 in 1911, and 140 would die in 1912.
Yet, aviators still resisted any sort of protection. In particular, American flyers viewed the parachute as a bygone hank of cloth and cord employed only by carny showmen jumping from balloons. Fully realizing the balloon’s obsolescence, those same showmen (who were often parachute inventors) were trying to market the parachute as a safety device for the aeroplane. But it was a tough sell. In an October 1911 issue of the French aeronautical newspaper L’Aero, aircraft manufacturer Antoine Odier put it best: Aviators dismiss parachutes because they don’t want to be reminded of the possibility of “le danger.”
The Biggest Fool in New York
Another sky-minded young man was having very different thoughts about the parachute. An “aerial contractor,” or steeplejack, by trade, 27-year-old Rodman Law had become bored painting flagpoles and tending to the spires of New York City’s skyscrapers. But as a man who the New York Times said “had to be at least 300 feet in the air with a cigar in his mouth to be absolutely comfortable,” Law soon found a viable career alternative when he met up with fellow New Yorker Leo Stevens.
As a young man, Stevens had been a showman balloon jumper but had also become a well-respected balloon and dirigible (steerable airship) manufacturer by the early 1900s. Like parachute backpack inventor Charles Broadwick, he had streamlined the old-fashioned trapeze-rig parachute to fit the aeroplane. And for quick deployment from low altitudes, Stevens had added a brilliant innovation: the ripcord. Historic inventions aside, the first step was to get publicity for the very concept of a safety device for aviators. A leap from the Statue of Liberty’s torch seemed just the ticket.
Arguing that the jump would demonstrate the parachute’s utility in saving the lives of military aviators and balloonists, Stevens and Law appealed to the War Department (which at the time had a camp on Liberty Island) for permission to leap from the statue. Remarkably, they assented. So on Friday afternoon, February 2, 1912, Rodman Law launched into a new profession.
Awaiting Law and Stevens on Liberty Island were the troops stationed there. Also in attendance were four cinematographers from the Pathé Company, an international film concern with its roots in France. Having recently introduced a dynamic new medium, the newsreel, Pathé had cinematographers around the globe capturing the most intriguing events of the time to screen almost immediately in movie theaters. They were paying Law $1,500 for the privilege.
Accompanied by an Army officer, Law and Stevens rode up the elevator to Lady Liberty’s head, then climbed the 50 feet of winding stairs within her arm to the torch to prepare to jump. The April 1912 issue of Aeronautics described the parachute harness Law used as two horizontally placed leather belts, one wrapped around him beneath the arms and the other around the waist. The two belts were connected by two short ropes, which were attached to the suspension line assembly. During descent, Law could relieve the tension from the belts wrapped about his torso by holding onto the spreader bar above his head.
At about 300 feet from the ground, the jump from the torch would be too low even for the ripcord innovation to deploy in time. Thus, the pack would have to forgo containment on the back, and the canopy had to be laid out for quick expansion. So that the canopy would slide over the rail easily upon Law’s jump, they unhinged a wooden door, tilted it up against the rail and stretched the canopy across it.
Aeronautics described the single-layered cotton and linen cloth canopy as 16 feet in diameter, with three ropes sewn into the fabric: one around the apex, one around the midpoint of the canopy and one around the apron. Sixteen hemp lines extended from the canopy’s apex, down to the canopy apron and then about 15 feet down to the steel-tube spreader, where eight lines were attached to each side of the bar. Two additional ropes ran directly from the apex to the spreader bar; as they were a shorter length than the suspension lines, they would serve to open the canopy upon the drop, but the strain would then equalize among all lines.
At 2:45 p.m., Rodman Law was ready to jump. This son of a former insurance salesman had never parachuted before, but the self-described “biggest fool in New York” said he was “willing to try anything once.”
Law fell 75 feet before the canopy opened. The brief drop didn’t allow quite enough time for the canopy to open fully, and he twisted his ankle upon landing; nevertheless, Law considered the experiment a success. “This jumping business is an awful cinch,” the enthusiastic Law declared. (Little did he know that he had not just begun a parachuting career, but a film career as well. By the end of the year, his would be a household name.)
Understanding that ordinarily it took a drop of 500 feet for his parachute to open sufficiently, Stevens was also pleased with the jump. Not only had he proven that his parachute could function at low altitudes (even without using the ripcord), but the publicity value of front-page news articles and newsreel viewings was immeasurable.
A Parachute Garment That Imitates a Deployed Bat
On Saturday, February 3, just as reports of Rodman Law’s fantastic leap reached newspapers worldwide, a 33-year-old tailor in Paris was writing his last will and testament. He was just being practical. Yet he was also optimistic, for he had invented a lifesaving apparatus for aviators and would test it the following day in a jump from the Eiffel Tower. Already, several Paris newspapers had announced the experiment. Under the small headline, “Protection of Airmen,” one paper wrote, “At seven-thirty tomorrow morning, Mr. Reichelt, with a parachute of his invention, will throw himself from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower.” The prefect of police, who had granted permission for the leap, would later claim that he assumed the inventor would be using a mannequin to test the device.
The French were at least as enraptured with the aeroplane as the Americans. France was also a breeding ground for parachuting; in 1797, a Frenchman was the first to parachute from a balloon. And, of course, the very word “parachute” was coined there.
Other nations were quick to dismiss a safety device for aeroplanes, instead emphasizing a safer machine. In the 1911 British book, “Aerial Locomotion,” a mathematician and a physics lecturer stated that “parachutes are quite unnecessary. In a properly constructed aeroplane the breakage of a part in mid-air would not occur. It should be regarded as inexcusable.” However, the French saw no harm in caution. A wealthy Frenchman, Monsieur Lalance, offered a monetary award for the invention of a useful parachute for aviators. In mid-1910 he offered 5,000 francs (the equivalent of about $24,000 today) but doubled it in late 1911 with a challenge for others to help him increase the prize to 100,000 francs. “I firmly believe,” Lalance wrote, “that when aviation will have available a parachute, its development is likely to change the face of the world, and what is 100,000 francs in view of lives so precious and outcomes so great?”
A number of Frenchmen began designing devices in hopes of winning the award. Their parachutes seemed mainly of the “soaring” type, in which—in an emergency—the aviator is pulled up and out of the open cockpit by a lever-deployed canopy. These inventors proceeded cautiously, consulting with knowledgeable colleagues. More importantly, they tested cautiously, not only with faux men, but also faux aeroplanes.
But the tailor-inventor Franz Reichelt seemed to have consulted no one. However, he did have an interesting idea for a parachute garment that he said, “imitates a deployed bat … [leaving] the pilot free of all his movements,” and submitted a patent application for it soon after the 1910 Prix Lalance announcement. Reichelt submitted three updates to his original patent over the next 19 months, each depicting a slightly different iteration. What he ended up using, as described by a friend, was a cloak with a large silk hood that would fill with air. Aviation experts consistently dismissed his work.
Yet, explains David Darriulat, author of the 2011 book, “Un Tailleur pour Dames au Temps des Aéroplanes” (A Dressmaker in the Time of Airplanes), Reichelt was no fool. He had immigrated to Paris from Austria in 1900 and operated his own successful dressmaking business, employing several workers. He believed that his tailoring expertise qualified him to craft a lifesaving garment for aviators.
In addition to the monetary award, Reichelt was also inspired by the “magic” that surrounded aviation at the time. “Anything was possible,” says Darriulat. “If machines of wood, iron and fabric fly through the air, why wouldn’t Monsieur Reichelt’s parachute suit work?”
But it hadn’t worked yet. He had launched parachute-equipped mannequins from his fifth-floor apartment window; he had conducted a mannequin trial from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in late 1910; he had himself leapt in the garment from 30 feet into a haystack. Friends said the tests had been inconclusive. The press was more to the point, with one paper reporting that the mannequin in the Eiffel Tower trial “had suffered serious injuries … external and internal.”
The Parisian Sunday morning of February 4 was foggy, windy and bitterly cold. Yet, a group of about 30 people had gathered below the Eiffel Tower to witness Reichelt’s experiment. In addition to a handful of curious onlookers were reporters, photographers and some aviation professionals. Among the latter was Gaston Hervieu, an experienced balloon parachutist and inventor who had successfully tested his own “soaring” parachute from the Eiffel Tower the previous February. His mannequin aviator in a mock aircraft had descended safely, winning Hervieu a gold medal from the French National Air League.
Franz Reichelt poses for the camera prior to his jump. Within hours of his death, Parisian audiences were viewing the film footage of his final moments at the Pathe-Palace cinema. Today, the inventor's last leap can be viewed frame by frame at britishpathe.com. David Darriault, author of the 2011 French book about Reichelt, "Un Tailleur pour Dames au Temps des Aeroplanes" (A Dressmaker in the Time of Airplanes) is hoping to soon publish an English version.
However, most notable on February 4 was the presence of cinematographers from the Pathé Journal, who would record the event not only for French cinema audiences, but ultimately, for posterity.
Meanwhile, already dressed in his parachute garment over his clothing, Reichelt had left his apartment by car with two friends for the Eiffel Tower. His friends implored him to continue tests with the mannequins or to wait for a less windy day. But he was convinced of success on that cold Sunday morning, because for the first time, he would operate the device himself while leaping from a sufficient height to deploy the parachute.
When Reichelt arrived at the Eiffel Tower, the crowd saw a young man who, reported the newspaper L’Intransigeant, was “alert, decided.” He was short of stature, with close-cropped dark brown hair, blue eyes and a prodigious mustache. His silk parachute garment was similar to an aviator’s suit but a little bulkier. He pointed out to the observers that his garment allowed freedom of movement. For the cinematographer, he performed a turn, showing the aspects of his buttoned-up garment, and tipped his hat cordially.
The Eiffel Tower had been built as the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair that commemorated both the centennial of the French Revolution and, according to the book “Eiffel’s Tower” by Jill Jonnes, “liberty, science and technology.” At first considered by many as an industrial-era eyesore, by 1912 La Grand Dame was both symbolic and utilitarian. It was used as a radio tower and had hosted numerous scientific experiments. It was the perfect stage for the naturalized French inventor to test his device.
Although at the time, the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world, Reichelt would be leaping from the first platform, a distance of about 187 feet.
Reichelt calmly instructed the police officers to contain the crowd beneath the tower and to cordon off the area inside the inner edges of the pillars to keep people away from his landing area on the Seine side of the tower. While Reichelt waited for clearance to enter the tower, award-winning parachute inventor Hervieu engaged him in conversation. The tailor-inventor explained to Hervieu how his device would work, stating that the area was 32 square meters (about
106 344 square feet). Hervieu was skeptical, but Reichelt just smiled and said confidently, “You will see how, but 72 kilos [158 pounds] and I will give your objections the best of denials.”
At last, Reichelt received permission to enter the tower. Accompanied by his two friends and a Pathé cinematographer, Reichelt began his ascent, saying to the onlookers, “A bientôt” (“See you soon”).
As documented on the century-old film that remains, we are able to witness Reichelt’s last moments:
On the first level of the tower, two chairs and a table from the nearby café had been set up. As a platform for his jump, the table was pushed up to the rail, and a chair placed atop; the other chair serving as a step up to the table-chair platform. Facing the camera, the tailor stood on the makeshift platform with his garment parachute open, wing-arms outstretched. To shape what would serve as part of his “canopy,” strategically placed cords tethered the edges of his “wings” to the jacket of his garment.
Because Reichelt would be leaping from a short distance, he needed to help along the deployment before the jump. In practice, a real aviator would have quickly popped the buttons of the garment front to release two rods that would spring up out of tubes at his back, one extending from each shoulder. Between the two sprung rods stretched a piece of cloth that would act as a pilot chute, to catch the air and open the rest of the suit. We see on the film that Reichelt had already elevated the shoulder rods.
One friend, wearing a tall hat and holding a cane, remained immobile, watching patiently, but the other bustled about Reichelt, helping him prepare for the jump. Reichelt had already unbuttoned the leggings portion of the garment and in a few quick moves shook them down to his ankles, lengthening the bat-like wings that webbed down from his arms. His feet were somewhat manacled by the dropped leggings, but they kept the bottom of the wings attached to the jumper.
His bustling friend checked the position of the leggings and backed away. Then, wings still spread, Reichelt placed his right foot on the rail, glanced quickly up to the sky, then intently kept his gaze downward. His friend moved around him again, seeming to ensure the pulled-down leggings cloth would not catch on the chair when Reichelt jumped.
The tailor continued to look down over the edge of the railing. He leaned slightly forward then back, again and again—unsure. Finally, he didn’t so much jump as tip forward. It was over in a few seconds. Reichelt’s device had failed for its last time.
The following day, Franz Reichelt was described in the French newspapers as both a madman and a martyr. Some journalists blamed the air currents; others suggested that he should have jumped from a greater height. Experts, however, knew that his winged canopy was much too small (the actual area was later estimated to be only about 5.5 square meters, or 60 square feet), and that
he Reichelt had entrusted his life to his invention much too soon.
Like the Course of a Crazy Arrow
Efforts were continuing to convince aviators of the parachute’s utility, but as yet no one had ever parachuted from an aeroplane—a feat that the aviation weekly Aero wrote “was popularly supposed and even claimed by some experts to be extremely hazardous if not impossible.” But those experts would be proven wrong on March 1, 1912, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The plan began earlier that winter, when manufacturer Tom Benoist (pronounced “ben-wah”) and his star pilot Antony Jannus decided to prove a drop—of anything—could be made from a plane.
Albert Berry tests his parachute prior to his landmark 1912 jump. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
The parachutist would be Albert Berry, son of award-winning balloonist and Benoist colleague John Berry. An experienced balloon jumper, Albert was game for the historic challenge. But it turned out that the soon-to-be-famous Albert Berry was also infamous. The summer before, he had been charged with being part of a mob that lynched and burned a man in a small town outside Philadelphia. Berry had been there performing balloon jumps for a harvest fair when he got caught up in a movement seeking vigilante justice for a security guard’s murder. In a case that shocked the nation, all of the accused—including Berry—had been acquitted of the horrific crime. Although the lynching and subsequent trials made national news just months before the jump in St. Louis, few newspapers connected the two events that both involved Berry.
At Kinloch Field, where Benoist was based, the team got to work. Because Berry would be using a conventional balloon-jumping parachute rig, in which the canopy normally hung loose beneath a rising balloon, keeping the canopy from blowing free before the leap was a concern. The team soon settled on a megaphone-like tin container, open at the large end with the small end attached to the footrest. The container would point downward for jumps but could pivot up and away from wind resistance otherwise. The 36-foot-diameter unbleached muslin canopy, folded among newspapers inside the container, would be held in place by rubber bands. The suspension lines led down to a trapeze bar, which the jumper could sit upon or grasp.
It was a fine idea, but the first step was to see what effect the dropping of any weight would have on the biplane, so Jannus took up Berry and a parachute-equipped anvil. The anvil “jumped” and landed safely, but only after Berry had climbed down to the axle and stomped with both feet on the anvil until it dropped enough to release the canopy.
The next step was something of a dress rehearsal, conducted Saturday, February 17, to test weight shift. While Jannus circled Kinloch Field at a moderate height, Berry performed a variety of tricks from a trapeze hanging below the axle. There were no ill effects to the plane, but Berry, hanging head down, was dragged through the cold mud when Jannus swung down too low.
With the team satisfied that the plan would work, an exhibition was scheduled then cancelled because the aeroplane couldn’t reach a high enough altitude, rescheduled and then scrapped again due to foul weather.
Finally, in the early afternoon of Friday, March 1, Jannus and Berry departed Kinloch Field in a Benoist biplane. In the biting cold, they were both bundled up, with Berry wearing a heavy rubber coat, boots, cavalry trousers, headguard, stocking cap and driving goggles.
Attaining an altitude of 3,500 feet above ground level, they flew southeast toward Jefferson Barracks, where Berry was to deliver a mock message to an officer at the Army base in a show of military purpose. As they approached the base at about 2,000 feet, Berry and Jannus saw the hundreds of soldiers and officers who were waiting to witness the historic drop. Trees surrounded three sides of the base, and the Mississippi River was along the fourth. In order to lower to the appropriate altitude for the drop, Jannus circled over the river and then headed back to the grounds.
While Jannus was flying about 55 mph at 1,500 feet over the drop zone, Berry unhooked the cone-shaped canopy container from the footrest and rotated it so its mouth was pointing downward. The suspension lines ran from the folded canopy to the trapeze bar, which was attached to the axle by a mechanism that Berry would use to cut away from the aircraft. Climbing down from his seat to the axle, Berry slipped his legs down into the two loops at either end of the trapeze bar and wrapped a belt around his waist. With his body completely below the axle, he was now sitting on the trapeze, with the cutaway mechanism just within reach above his head. After checking that the suspension lines were clear, he cut away. The weight of his fall popped the rubber bands and pulled the folded parachute out of the cone.
Pilot Tony Jannus (left) and experience balloon jumper Albert Berry in the Benoist aircraft used for the St. Louis jump. Note the cone that holds Berry's parachute. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Berry plummeted, the canopy trailing after him. “I was not prepared for the violent sensation that I felt when I broke away from the aeroplane,” Berry later said. “There is a vast difference between cutting loose from a balloon which is floating in the air and from breaking away from a machine that is tearing along at nearly a mile a minute.” He somersaulted several times, like “the course of a crazy arrow,” until his canopy opened at about 1,000 feet.
After Berry cut away, Jannus pulled the cone back to its original position and hooked it in place. Some reports claimed that Jannus experienced stability problems related to the sudden release of Berry’s weight from the aircraft, but the pilot said it was “entirely due to up and down trends and the presence beneath me of a tall stack belching heat and smoke.”
As Jannus circled to prepare for landing, Albert Berry glided down over the parade grounds and mess hall, alighting among cheers. “I had the never-again feeling when I landed,” recalled Berry. “I was so numbed that it seemed as if I couldn’t move a muscle. It helped some to be tossed around as I was by the men who took me on their shoulders and carried me around.”
After the jump, some officers commented that it was only a good stunt for thrills, but others immediately saw its utility for warfare. Jannus agreed with the latter group, suggesting parachute drops of poison gas canisters and troops. As for Berry, he said that after a scheduled demonstration the following week at Kinloch Field, he would “never attempt the feat again.”
Even with the mixed reactions of those involved, the accomplishment was heralded worldwide. The historic feat at Jefferson Barracks proved that not only could a weight be safely dropped from an aeroplane, but that a person could parachute from one. Jannus and Benoist immediately applied for a patent on the cone-shaped parachute container system. In retrospect, their technique seems unnecessarily complicated, but it had worked in practice, and the pilot and manufacturer sought to secure the rights to its success.
As 1912 wore on, parachuting from aeroplanes became routine and almost mundane, with stories being pushed from illustrated front pages to small blurbs on back pages. Yet, it was too soon for aviators to be convinced of the parachute’s utility. Flyers still had the utmost confidence in their machines, and there were just too many ridiculous parachute ideas being bandied about that year: a suit covered in upside-down pockets that would (hopefully) fill with air as the aviator dropped; a lifesaving hoopskirt that would waft the aviator down à la Scarlett O’Hara; and a canopy that popped out the back of a Trojan-style helmet, ensuring both a safe descent and whiplash.
But it seemed obvious—at least to many—that having some sort of safeguard that might work was better than having nothing at all. Looking back at the recent demise of several flyers, a wise civilian with an interest in aviation wrote to Aero and Hydro, “Had a parachute been successful in the saving of but one … the device would have been worth carrying by each and every one of them.”
About the Author
Freelance writer Lisa Ritter has written about parachute history for Parachutist, Air & Space/Smithsonian Magazine and The Airborne Engineers Journal.