Magazine article History Today

Monsieur Garnerin Drops In: John Lucas Extols the Pioneers Who Helped Develop the Parachute, Two Centuries Ago. (Cross Current).(Column)

Magazine article History Today

Monsieur Garnerin Drops In: John Lucas Extols the Pioneers Who Helped Develop the Parachute, Two Centuries Ago. (Cross Current).(Column)

Article excerpt

VISITORS FROM NAPOLEON'S France may not have been especially welcome in England in the early nineteenth century, but thirty-three-year-old Andre-Jacques Garnerin, who dropped out of the sky by parachute over London just 200 years ago this month, qualified as a hero. Early in the evening of September 21st, 1802, Londoners thronged St George's Parade Ground, in North Audley Street, and the surrounding area, to see the Frenchman score a historic `first'. Never before had anyone made a parachute jump from a balloon in Britain.

Below the huge striped hydrogen balloon was what resembled a closed umbrella--or, according to some ladies, a hooped petticoat. Suspended below this, clad in blue jacket, white waistcoat and nankeen pantaloons, and waving a silk French tricolour, stood Garnerin in a small basket. When all was ready, the whole structure, about 120 feet tall, was carried aloft to about 8,000 feet. Then Garnerin cut himself free. Air filled out the parachute canopy above him and then, swinging on the gentle south-west wind, he landed near St Pancras Church less than two miles away.

The Frenchman was adding to his four previous jumps. His first, which put him into the record books as the first successful parachutist from a balloon, had been made five years earlier over the Parc Monceau in Paris. But now his audience was an excited crowd of Londoners, among whom were Lord Stanhope, a scientist, and the Duke of York. For Garnerin, the descent was, as always, nauseous. His vomiting was caused by the parachute's vigorous oscillation. For it was not appreciated then, as it is now, that to be stable a parachute's fabric must be porous, allowing air to permeate evenly. Garnerin's, being of canvas and thus impenetrable, caused marked swinging.

Garnerin was a pioneer and a showman. Had he also been clairvoyant, he might have seen that one day, in the age of flight, the parachute would prove itself an invaluable benefit. According to an estimate by the late aeronautical historian Charles Gibbs-Smith, it has saved 200,000 human lives.

Among the spectators at Garnerin's parachute landing that September evening was twenty-five-year-old Robert Cocking, ballooning enthusiast, artist and amateur scientist. What preoccupied him was the parachute's oscillation, and he was determined to find a remedy.

It was, however, thirty-five years before Cocking, then a portly sixty-one, could persuade anyone to produce a parachute to his design. This turned out to be a large, saucer-shaped affair, which he hoped would bear him safely to earth and earn him honours as the first English parachutist.

Alas, it was not to be. For a start, Cocking's self-confidence was not shared by the famous aeronaut Charles Green, who took him up beneath his `Royal Vauxhall' balloon from Vauxhall Gardens. Green declined the responsibility of releasing him, so the manager of the Gardens provided `tackle', a mechanism that Cocking could work himself. The balloon rose, but only to 5,000 feet not the hoped-for 8,000. This was probably because of the parachute's weight, due to its frame of wood and metal tubing. Green asked Cocking whether he wanted to postpone the jump, and Cocking shouted no, adding: `I never felt more comfortable or more delighted in my life.' Then he cut himself and his parachute free. Seconds later, the parachute and its framework fell and crumpled into a useless mass, and poor Cocking dropped, not to hoped-for fame but to his death, on a hill near Lee in south London. He hardly deserved the final indignity, when a local publican put his broken body and parachute on show in his bar at ninepence a look.

The following year, 1838, in the wake of public disquiet over Cocking's exploit, success did come to balloonist John Hampton, who dropped safely over Cheltenham. The nervous owners of Montpellier Gardens tried to head off catastrophe by insisting that the balloon's flight should be limited by a tether. …

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