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Monsieur Garnerin Drops In

John Lucas extols the pioneers who helped develop the parachute, two centuries ago.

Visitors from Napoleon’s France may not have been especially welcome in England in the early nineteenth century, but thirty-three-year-old André-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.

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