As you contemplate your first skydiving experience, you’ve probably asked yourself: Who invented the parachute? Answer: a community of brave, innovative forward thinkers, stretching all the way back to the 1400s. While the history of parachutes holds the distinction of being one of the longest and most storied of any airfaring equipment, the fact of the matter is that it’s still in the process of being re-invented, right up to this day. No contributor to this process should be shelved, faceless, in history.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Parachute
Often, the invention of the parachute is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Bless him, ol’ Leo did much of the very early groundwork towards what we now recognize as the parachute back in the 1470s, but it’s hard to give him all the credit. After all: the Leonardo da Vinci parachute, while interesting-as-heck, hardly resembles the parachute we all know and love. Nobody in their right mind would want to jump a Leonardo da Vinci parachute, for one (though it’s funny to imagine what it would look like to try to cram that wood-framed cone into an airplane). The thing has far too many points and far too much heavy material to appeal to a skydiver who intends to keep her limbs intact. No wonder he never tested it. (But you can! Make yourself a fun little toy parachute with these instructions.)
From Cone to Round Parachute
Things started looking more promising about 150 years after da Vinci’s time. Polymath Venetian Fausto Veranzio, hyphenate extraordinaire (inventor-engineer-historian-author and we’re guessing -lover) took his inspiration from da Vinci’s untested sketch and decided (whew!) to soften things up a bit. Instead of a pointy cone, Veranzio drew up a canopy of billowing fabric that was meant to function much more rudimentarily but looks uncannily like the parachutes we know and love today. (It did, however, have a wooden frame. It was only in the late 1700s that parachute inventors gave that up.)
For a very, very long time after, parachutes were round, vented creatures that pretty much dropped out of the sky like a box o’ rocks and responded like disenfranchised teenagers to any attempt on the pilot’s part to steer. This was a dark time for ankles, tibia, fibulae and dropzone-adjacent trees all over the world.
The Introduction of the Modern Square Parafoil
Luckily, those days were numbered. By the time the days of disco and leisure suits rolled around, the modern ram-air parachute – a.k.a. “Parafoil” – parachute appeared on the scene. (Cue “Stayin’ Alive.” We’ll wait for a moment while you strut around singing it to yourself.) Canadian kite-maker Domina Jalbert realized that air is perfectly capable of creating a rigid framework if it’s given the opportunity to properly inflate something, and that by manipulating that inflation, you can change the direction you’re headed. BINGO. Square parachutes made their tentative debut on dropzones worldwide; now, it’s exceedingly rare to see anything else.
Why? Square parachutes make flying fun. They go where you ask them to, land softly and sweetly into the wind (thanks to the “flare” technique, borrowed from birds and fixed-wing aircraft) and pack so tinily and tidily into containers that modern parachutists carry a spare (a self-deploying spare, in fact. Read up on “skydiving AAD” for more on that advancement.)
So: Who invented the parachute? The answer is simple: A tribe. And you’re welcome to be a member! The skydiving community loves innovators, free thinkers, adventurists and intellectuals, and there’s always room for one more. Join us today!
PS: For more useful and fun information around the innovation of skydiving, read our History of Skydiving and Tiny Broadwick and other famous Female Skydivers articles.