A new interactive Google Doodle recreates the first parachute descent from 3,200 feet, which took place in Paris 216 years ago today. Google users can employ the left and right arrows on their keyboards to guide a top hat-wearing cartoon of French balloonist André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823) through the sky. Don’t worry about messing up in the game or killing the character, because he survived the real feat on October 22, 1797, after attaching a parachute to a hydrogen balloon. He landed in the city’s Parc Monceau “with a bump, mounted a horse, and galloped back to where the crowd waited to hail him as the world’s bravest man,” per a Jun. 8, 1930, New York Times account of the moment.
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The origins of the parachute may trace back to Chinese acrobats, who are believed to have used a similar concept to help break their falls. Leonardo DaVinci sketched a “pyramid-shaped, wooden-framed” design around 1495, and another French aeronaut, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, is believed to have created one out of “two umbrellas and jumped from a tree” around 1783.
Garnerin, however, is considered the first man to parachute consistently from such high altitudes. The enthusiasm ran in his family, as his wife Jeanne-Genevieve became the first female parachutist in 1799. The Frenchman, who thought seriously about aerial escapes while being held in a Hungarian prison during the French Revolution, went on to complete more of them as part of exhibitions throughout Europe. He completed one from 8,000 feet in London on Sept. 21, 1802, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing, as the New York Times put it:
He ascended in a balloon to an altitude of more than a mile and jumped with nothing more than a silk canopy…[H]is canopy had a tendency to swing so violently from side to side that he often had a bad case of motion sickness by the time he reached the ground.
Garnerin died on Aug. 18, 1823, after a wooden beam fell on his head as he was constructing a parachute before a balloon launch.
Perhaps you can think of the aeronaut as one of the many people who paved the way for the last skydive to make international headlines: Felix Baumgartner, anyone?