CHAPTER IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF BALLOON PHILOSOPHY.
In less than two years not only had the science of ballooning reached almost its highest development, but the balloon itself, as an aerostatic machine, had been brought to a state of perfection which has been but little improved upon up to the present t hour. Better or cheaper methods of inflation were yet to be discovered, lighter and more suitable material remained to be manufactured; but the navigation of the air, which hitherto through all time had been beyond man's grasp, had been attained, as it were, at a bound, and at the hands of many different and independent experimentalists was being pursued with almost the same degree of success and safety as to-day.
Nor was this all. There was yet another triumph of the aeronautical art which, within the same brief period, had been to all intents and purposes achieved, even if it had not been brought to the same state of perfection as at the present hour. This was the Parachute. This fact is one which for a sufficient reason is not generally known. It is very commonly supposed that the parachute, in anything like its present form, is a very modern device, and that the art of successfully using it had not been introduced to the world even so lately as thirty years ago. Thus, we find it stated in works of that date dealing with the subject that disastrous consequences almost necessarily attended the use of the parachute, "the defects of which had been attempted to be remedied in various ways, but up to this time without success." A more correct statement, however, would have been that the art of constructing and using a practicable parachute had through many years been lost or forgotten. In actual fact, it had been adopted with every assurance of complete success by the year 1785, when Blanchard by its means lowered dogs and other animals with safety from a balloon. A few years later he descended himself in a like apparatus from Basle, meeting, however, with the misadventure of a broken leg.
But we must go much further back for the actual conception of the parachute, which, we might suppose, may originally have been suggested by the easy floating motion with which certain seeds or leaves will descend from lofty trees, or by the mode adopted by birds of dropping softly to earth with out-stretched wings. M. de la Loubere, in his historical account of Siam, which he visited in 1687-88, speaks of an ingenious athlete who exceedingly diverted the King and his court by leaping from a height and supporting himself in the air by two umbrellas, the handles of which were affixed to his girdle. In 1783, that is, the same year as that in which the balloon was invented, M. le Normand experimented with a like umbrella-shaped contrivance, with a view to its adoption as a fire escape, and he demonstrated the soundness of the principle by descending himself from the windows of a lofty house at Lyons.
It was, however, reserved for M. Jacques Garnerin in 1797 to make the first parachute descent that attracted general attention. Garnerin had previously been detained as a State prisoner in the fortress of Bade, in Hungary, after the battle of Marchiennes in 1793, and during his confinement had pondered on the possibility of effecting his escape by a parachute. His solitary cogitations and calculations resulted, after his release, in the invention and construction of an apparatus which he put to a practical test at Paris before the court of France on October 22nd, 1797. Ascending in a hydrogen balloon to the height of about 2,000 feet, he unhesitatingly cut himself adrift, when for some distance he dropped like a stone. The folds of his apparatus, however, opening suddenly, his fall became instantly checked. The remainder of his descent, though leisurely, occupying, in fact, some twelve minutes, appeared to the spectators to be attended with uncertainty, owing to a swinging motion set up in the car to which he was clinging. But the fact remains that he reached the earth with only slight impact, and entirely without injury.
It appears that Garnerin subsequently made many equally successful parachute descents in France, and during the short peace of 1802 visited London, where he gave an exhibition of his art. From the most reliable accounts of his exploit it would seem that his drop was from a very great height, and that a strong ground wind was blowing at the time, the result of which was that wild, wide oscillations were set up in the car, which narrowly escaped bringing him in contact with the house tops in St. Pancreas, and eventually swung him down into a field, not without some unpleasant scratches.
Nor was Garnerin the only successful parachutist at this period. A Polish aeronaut, Jordaki Kuparento, ascended from Warsaw on the 24th of July, 1804 in a hot air balloon, taking up, as was the custom, an attached furnace, which caused the balloon to take fire when at a great height. Kuparento, however, who was alone, had as a precaution provided himself with a parachute, and with this he seems to have found no difficulty in effecting a safe descent to earth.