What Could Go Wrong Part MDCCCLXXXIII

Lenormand jumps from the tower of the Montpellier observatory, 1783. Illustration from the late 19th Century (Wikipedia) If I confess to any familiarity whatsoever with “Monster High” what little credibility I might possess is liable to plummet ignominiously. But there is an episode in which several of the characters manage to get onto a reality TV show called “Or Die Trying” involving ever more hazardous challenges. And it reminds me of the history of invention.

For instance the guy who made the first recorded parachute jump on October 22, 1783. And as a plot spoiler, he invented the word “parachute” … two years later. So he survived.

His name was Louis-Sébastien Lenormand and he was French; they were very big on this “in the air” thing in those days (see for instance the September 24, 2016 It Happened Today). And what struck me initially as Lenormand plunged past was that he made the jump from 3,200 feet. Or rather, being French and all snootily metric, 1,000 metres.

That’s a long way up. And I thought man, you’ve gotta have some kind of confidence to do the first one from that height. Wouldn’t it be safer to kind of ease into it? But then I realized being killed in a 100 metre fall is no less lethal whereas succeeding is less spectacular. And you’d feel like a fool being killed from 100 metres because a parachute that would have worked from 1,000 didn’t have time to open. So I guess it was actually a nice, careful approach to hurling yourself into the void tied to something that might work. Maybe. Who knows?

Two years later, another Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated the parachute as a practical way of escaping a failing hot-air balloon. With a great deal more prudence than most of the contestants in my version of “Or Die Trying: The Human Ingenuity Version” including Lenormand himself. You see, Blanchard threw his dog out with a parachute on rather than, say, jumping himself.

He later claimed to have done it for real himself in 1793 when his balloon ruptured but nobody saw that one. And don’t try this with your cat; a dog will thank you for letting him be part of the adventure while a cat will secretly claw your balloon in revenge.

Now at this point I should say that the whole parachute story shows rather more prudence than most of these let’s-put-a-steam-engine-under-some-hydrogen ventures in which people demonstrate that you can always find a new way to die. You see, it turns out there are sketches of parachutes going back to the 15th century including, you guessed it, one by Da Vinci. But in the “very dangerous, you go first” spirit that has struggled with “Or Die Trying” since somebody grunted “Hey, let’s tame fire” or even earlier, nobody actually tested their own parachute design or got conned into testing someone else’s for three entire centuries. And when someone finally did, he used sufficient skill and common sense that he improbably survived.

If anyone can use common sense and make the first ever parachute jump. I have my doubts. But Lenormand did make it, and instead of plummeting ignominiously got to name the working device years later. And thanks to him we’re all much safer today in hot air balloons. Even if we’re French dogs.