Occasionally, embarrassing celebrity deaths (embarrassing though they may be) can actually add that to person’s fame — and perhaps even define their legacy. One such case was that of Franz Reichelt.
Franz Reichelt, born 1879, was an Austrian-French inventor and parachuting pioneer. Reichelt made a living as a tailor, but growing up at the turn of the 20th century, he was enamored with the nascent world of aviation.
During this age of invention, hot air balloons, airships, and early heavier-than-air crafts were developing at a rapid rate.
With these new advancements, people were increasingly looking at safety precautions for air travel as well. By the early 1910s, a parachute that worked at high altitudes in case pilots and passengers had to escape a failing plane had already been invented. But no invention existed for people leaping from planes at low altitudes.
Wanting to make his mark on the world of aviation, Reichelt took on the task of developing such a parachute. He used his tailoring skills to create prototypes with foldable silk wings. During test runs done on dummies, the wings were successful in slowing down the speed so that the dummies could make a soft landing.
In 1911, the Aéro-Club de France offered a prize of 10,000 francs to anyone who could create a safety parachute for aviators that did not exceed 25 kilograms in weight.
Reichelt’s prototypes greatly exceeded the allotted weight, but his attempts to scale them down weren’t a success. Still, he didn’t give up.
His next step was creating what he called a “parachute-suit.” It was a flight suit adorned with rods and a rubber lining that held up a silk canopy.
Early tests of the parachute-suit left Reichelt with a broken leg, but he claimed that it happened because the heights he was testing it from were too short. So after a year of lobbying the Parisian Police Department to let him test the device from the first stage of the Eiffel Tower, they agreed to let him do so on Feb. 4, 1912.
Thinking that he would use test dummies to display his invention, the police were shocked when Reichelt arrived at the tower and revealed that he himself would be jumping.
“I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention,” Reichelt said to friends and a security guard who were trying to persuade him not to make the jump himself.
“You are going to see how my seventy-two kilos and my parachute will give your arguments the most decisive of denials,” he said.
His brimming confidence and bravado could have been viewed as noble. If the invention had worked.
Unfortunately, it did not. After a cheerful À bientôt (French for “see you soon”), Franz Reichelt jumped from the 187-foot-high stage and, as the parachute folded around him, plummeted to his death. With a crushed arm and leg, broken spine and skull, and bloodied face, he was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to the French press, Reichelt’s eyes were wide open with a look of terror.
Reichelt’s demise became a worldwide spectacle and has endured among embarrassing celebrity deaths due largely to the fact that his fall was captured on film.
He didn’t create the invention he’d always dreamed of, but Franz Reichelt certainly did made his mark in history.