As a war prisoner in Buda, Hungary, Frenchman André Jacques Garnerin had time on his hands. Time to plot his escape. He thought of breaking down the door to his prison, of overpowering his guards and a dozen other schemes. But his wildest idea was to leap from the window of his prison tower and drift to the ground holding an umbrella-like device.
Garnerin was still hatching this scheme when the war ended in 1797 and he was released, but he never forgot it. He was so taken by the idea that he built the contraption of his dreams – a 7 meter canopy made from white canvas styled much like an umbrella with 36 ribs. An “umbrella pole” ran down the center of a basket large enough to carry a human.
Taking the plunge
On October 22, 1797, in front of a crowd of spectators at Parc Monceau in Paris, Garnerin inflated a large hydrogen balloon and hooked the ‘umbrella’ to it. The balloon rose into the air carrying Garnerin in the basket. At 900 metres, Garnerin cut the connecting cord. It was a tense moment. “I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and earth and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race,” he reported later.
Once cut, the balloon shot skyward. Garnerin plunged to the ground.
Fortunately, as the canopy filled with air, it billowed, slowing his fall. But air trapped in the canopy spilled from the edges, making Garnerin’s parachute sway back and forth. At first the motion was gentle and soothing, but as more air gushed from the canopy, its pace quickened sending the canopy and its inventor careening wildly from side to side. Nausea swept over Garnerin. He dropped to the ground uninjured, promptly mounted his horse, and rode through the crowd of admirers ending the world’s first-ever successful parachute jump from a hydrogen balloon.
Birth of the dynamic duo
Among the spectators that day was 22-year-old Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse. Inspired by Garnerin’s stunt, she befriended him, became his student, and later his wife.
On October 12, 1799, Jeanne tested the device herself. From a balloon hovering at an altitude of 900 metres, she parachuted to the ground in the gondola basket. With her daredevil act, Jeanne joined André in the league of daredevils, becoming the first woman to complete a parachute jump from a lighter-than-air balloon.
Today, a plaque in Parc Monceau marks the site of Garnerin’s landing spot, and adding to the distinction, a street in Paris has been named after him, too. Jeanne has not been forgotten either. On October 17, 2006, a street in Wissous, France, was named in her honour.
For Further Reading
Bonjour Paris – An Insider’s Guide: André-Jacques Garnerin: The Parachutist of Parc Monceau