Franz Reichelt had so much confidence in his homemade parachute that he used it to jump off of the Eiffel Tower.
They say “pride cometh before the fall,” but in few circumstances can the quote be applied so literally as it can be in the case of Franz Reichelt.
Franz Reichelt was an Austrian-born tailor living in France during the turn of the century who had dreams beyond his profession. In the 1890s and 1900s, the age of aviation was dawning, with hot air balloons and airships becoming more and more popular, and early heavy aircrafts being developed.
Reichelt was entranced by this new technology and wanted to put his mark on this age of invention. By the early 1910s, people were beginning to focus on the safety of air travel and were beginning to look for a parachute that pilots and passengers could use to bail out of planes.
Though functional fixed-canopy parachutes already existed, and a parachute had already been invented that worked for high altitudes, no parachute existed for people leaping from planes or at low altitude.
In 1911, Colonel Lalance of 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.
Spurred on by this prize, as well as his own creative inclination, Reichelt began to develop such a parachute.
Using his expertise as a tailor, Reichelt created prototypes with foldable silk wings that successfully slowed down dummies so they could land softly. However, these prototypes were far above the weight and size that could be used on an airplane.
While all his attempts to scale down these prototypes were unsuccessful, Reichelt was undeterred.
He created what he called a “parachute-suit”: a standard flight suit adorned with a few rods, a silk canopy, and rubber lining. Despite unsuccessful early tests that left him with a broken leg, Reichelt believed it was only the short heights he had tested it from that prevented the chute from working.
To these ends, Reichelt began to lobby the Parisian Police Department to allow him to test his parachute from the first stage of the Eiffel Tower. After over a year of being denied, Reichelt was finally permitted to test his parachute on the tower on February 4th, 1912.
The police believed that Reichelt would use test dummies to display the effectiveness of his invention, and the tailor did not reveal that he himself was planning to jump until he arrived at the tower at 7:00 a.m. on the 4th.
Many of Reichelt’s friends, as well as a security guard working there, tried to persuade him not to make the jump himself. When asked if he would use any safety measures on this experiment he said, “I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”
When a witness tried to explain to Reichelt that the parachute would not open at the short height he was jumping from, he merely replied, “You are going to see how my seventy-two kilos and my parachute will give your arguments the most decisive of denials.”
At 8:22 a.m., Reichelt gave one last cheery “À bientôt” (See you soon) to the crowd, before jumping off the tower.
As he jumped, his parachute folded around him, and he plummeted 187 feet to the cold ground below where he died on impact.
His right leg and arm were crushed, his skull and spine were broken, and he was bleeding from his mouth, nose, and ears. The French press at the time noted that when onlookers saw his body, his eyes were wide open, dilated with terror.
This death was captured by the press in both pictures and film, making a worldwide media sensation out of the dead inventor.
Though he may not have accomplished his goal of creating a functioning safety parachute, Franz Reichelt lives on as an odd media phenomenon, where a failed inventor died attempting to display his creation.
Enjoy this article on Franz Reichelt? Next, check out these surprising Eiffel Tower facts and photos that tell the story you’ve never heard. Then, see this video of American composer Joseph Bertolozzi turning the Eiffel Tower into a giant musical instrument.