Franz Reichelt’s Fatal Jump

Dec 15, 2020 0 comments

The British Pathé film archive has a chilling video of a man jumping to his death from the Eiffel Tower. The man in the short video is shown wearing some sort of an oversized suit. Standing on the ledge of the tower’s first level, he hesitates for a few long seconds and then takes the plunge. He plummets straight down to the ground below.

The man who took the fatal leap was Franz Reichelt, an Austrian-born French tailor, who owned a successful dressmaking business in Paris. Shortly after opening shop, Reichelt became obsessed with developing a wearable parachute that could be worn as a suit by aviators and deployed at moment’s notice.

 Franz Reichelt

Franz Reichelt wearing his parachute suit.

The working principle of the basic parachute was worked out by inventors hundreds of years before humans took flight, first in balloons and later in airplanes. One of the earliest sketches of a rigid-frame parachute can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. “If a man have a tent made of linen of which the apertures (openings) have all been stopped up, and it be twelve braccia (about 23 feet) across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury,” he wrote.

The Dalmatian inventor Fausto Veranzio (1551–1617) improved upon da Vinci’s design by replacing the canopy with a bulging sail-like piece of cloth. Although many sources claim that Veranzio tested the parachute by jumping from the St Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava, it likely never occurred. It wasn’t until the late 18th century, when a Frenchman named Louis-Sébastien Lenormand made the first successful parachute jump. It was Lenormand who coined the word “parachute” from the Italian prefix para meaning "against” and the French word chute for “fall”.

Louis-Sébastien Lenormand,

The world’s first parachute jump by Louis-Sébastien Lenormand in 1783.

With the dawn of aviation and the tragic accidents that resulted from aerial misadventures, the need for a working parachute was strongly felt. It was Charles Broadwick who designed the first foldable parachute that could be worn on the back and released with the help of a static line attached to the balloon or airplane. In a successful demonstration in 1911, Broadwick threw a dummy from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The static line became taut, pulled the parachute from the pack worn by the dummy, and then the line snapped.

Franz Reichelt also began working on wearable parachutes. His early designs used 6 square meters of cloth and weighed an impractical 70 kg. Every experiments he conducted with dummies from the courtyard of his building at rue Gaillon failed. Nevertheless, Reichelt persevered and managed to reduce the weight of the suit to under 25 kg while doubling the surface area of the material used. But his tests were still unsuccessful and his dummies invariably fell heavily to earth. Reichelt himself broke his leg when he attempted a jump.

Despite his repeated failures, Reichelt refused to see any flaw in his design. On the contrary, he was convinced that if he could increase the drop distance, his parachute would be a success as it would give the flaps more time to unfurl properly.

 Franz Reichelt

Franz Reichelt showing his parachute suit before the jump.

Reichelt began petitioning the authorities for permission to conduct experiments from the Eiffel Tower, but each time he was rebuffed. After a year of trying, he was eventually granted permission to do so, under the condition that the test had to be performed on a dummy. Reichelt agreed, but that was never his plan.

On the day of the test, 4 February 1912, Reichelt arrived at the Eiffel Tower dressed in his parachute suit that was, according to the press, “only a little more voluminous than ordinary clothing”. The suit did not restrict the wearer's movements when the parachute was packed, and deploying the parachute was as simple as extending the arms out to form a cross with the body. Once extended, the outfit resembled “a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk”, according to the newspaper Le Temps. Reichelt informed the assembled journalists that the surface area of the final design was 30 square meters, a vast improvement from his early designs. Reichelt also claimed that the suit weighed as little as 9 kg.

 Franz Reichelt

A big crowd gathered at the base of the Eiffel Tower to see, what they presumed, a dummy being dropped from the first level of the towering landmark. However, when Reichelt presented himself wearing a suit, it was adequately clear that his intention was different. Despite being surrounded by a crowd of police officers and reporters, few took the initiative to stop him. Reichelt had concealed his true motives until the last moment, which took everyone by surprise, including his friends, who tried to dissuade him. They reasoned that Reichelt would have ample opportunities to prove his invention, but Reichelt wouldn’t listen. When asked whether he intended to use safety ropes, Reichelt replied: “I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”

To those pressing technical objections, such as the drop being too short for the parachute to fully open, Reichelt replied scornfully: “You are going to see how my seventy-two kilos and my parachute will give your arguments the most decisive of denials.”

Eventually, Reichelt began climbing the stairs. On the way, he paused, turned back to the crowd and shouted cheerfully, “See you soon”. His friends continued to try to talk him out of the jump, but they were unable to shake his steely resolve. At the tower’s first deck, a little more than 57 meters (187 feet) high, Reichelt stood on the ledge and hesitated for a full 40 seconds. Then he leaped.

Reichelt’s parachute barely opened. He dropped like a brick entangled in his own suit. Reichelt was dead before the first onlookers had rushed to the mangled mass of flesh, bones and canvas. His eyes were reportedly wide open and dilated with terror.

It was claimed that Reichelt was inspired to make the jump himself, rather than use a dummy, when he learned that a U.S. steeplejack Frederick Law had successfully parachuted 223 feet from the New York’s Statue of Liberty using a conventional canopy just two days previously. In any case, Reichelt’s foolhardiness was much discussed in the newspapers the next day and for several days to come. The Prefect of Police, Louis Lépine, was forced to explain that Reichelt had not been authorized to make a human jump. Indeed, after Reichelt's death, the authorities became wary of granting permission for any further parachute experiments using the Eiffel Tower. Each application was carefully scrutinized, and rejected if the applicant was found attempting to do anything suspicious. One inventor wanted to test his “helicopter parachute” and was denied.

The grim tale has been repeated countless number of times, but not in the most flattering way. Soon after the incident, one journalist suggested that only half the term “mad genius” applied to Reichelt. Lately, Reichelt has earned the nickname of the “Flying Tailor”.


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