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Leonardo da Vinci
The Invention of the Parachute
Hands On Activity: Compare a Modern Parachute Performance to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s design.

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  • Leonardo da Vinci Inventions and Discoveries

    Leonardo da Vinci, the most versatile genius of the Renaissance, is best remembered as the painter of the Mona Lisa (c. 1503) and The Last Supper (c. 1495). But he is almost equally famous for his astonishing multiplicity of talents: architecture, sculpture, music, engineering, geology, hydraulics and the military arts, all with success, and in his spare time doodled sketches for working parachutes and flying machines like helicopters that resembled inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries. He made detailed drawings of human anatomy which are still highly regarded today. Was also known for his engineering of canal locks, cathedrals, and engines of war. Leonardo also was quirky enough to write notebook entries in mirror (backwards) script, a trick which kept many of his observations from being widely known until decades after his death.

    The History of the Invention of the Parachute

    Some think that a form of a primitive parachute was mentioned by Chinese texts 21 centuries ago. In 9th century Abbas Ibn Firnas and Ali Ben Isa (of Arabic origin) also created one of the earliest versions of a parachute which John H. Lienhard described as "a huge winglike cloak to break his fall" [1].

    A conical parachute appears for the first time in the 1470s in an Italian manuscript, slightly preceding Leonardo da Vinci's conical parachute designs [2]. It was intended as an escape device to allow people to jump from burning buildings, but there is no evidence that it was actually ever used.

    Many think that the first modern conical parachute design had been imagined and sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century.

    Leonardo's parachute design consists of sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles, about seven metres long. The original design was scribbled by Da Vinci in a notebook in 1483. An accompanying note read: "If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury."

    Model of Leonardo's parachute
    Model of Leonardo's parachute based on Vinci's sketch of a parachute from c. 1483 that was found in a notebook margin. The original drawing is kept in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan

    Maybe the first implemented parachute was created in 1595 by the Croatian inventor Faust Vrančić, who named it Homo Volans (Flying Man). Twenty years later, he implemented his design and tested the parachute by jumping from a tower in Venice in 1617 [3].

    Credit for the invention of the first practical parachute frequently goes to Sebastien Lenormand who demonstrated the parachute principle in 1783.

    A French aeronaut (pilot of a balloon or lighter-than-air aircraft), Jean Pierre Blanchard, claimed the invention of the parachute in 1785, and the first successful parachute descent from a great height was made in 1797 by the French aeronaut Jacques Garnerin, who dropped 3,000 ft (920 m) from a balloon. Parachutes began as an escape system for persons aboard balloons or aircraft unable to land safely. In 1887, Captain Thomas Baldwin invented the first parachute harness and in 1890, Paul Letteman and Kathchen Paulus invented the method of folding or packing the parachute in a knapsack to be worn on the back before its release.

    On Tuesday, 27 June, 2000 BBC News Online's Dr Damian Carrington reported that Leonardo Da Vinci was proved right, over 500 years after he sketched the design for the first parachute.

    A British man, Adrian Nicholas, dropped, with a Da Vinci implemented parachute, from a hot air balloon 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) above the ground, after ignoring expert advice that the canvas and wood contraption would not fly beacuse of weight.

    The parachute's great weight was due to the use of materials that would have been available in medieval Milan like canvas and wood.

    Mr Nicholas said he thought Da Vinci would have been pleased, even if the vindication of his idea came five centuries late.

    Da Vinci's Parachute Sketch
    Da Vinci's Parachute Sketch

    The full story:

    Experiments with Parachutes

    We suggest two main options:
    • Test scaled down parachutes' properties in general.
    • Compare modern parachute performance to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s design.
    A few tips:

    • Get a stopwatch and time how long it takes for your object to fall with and without the parachute. Do several drops and see if the time is always the same or if it varies somewhat.
    • Using the same weight, compare the results with a small and a large parachute.
    • Using the same size parachute, compare results using two different weights or more.
    • Try lengthening or shortening the length of the suspension lines.
    • Try changing the number of suspension lines.
    • Try different shapes for your parachute, round, oval, rectangular, square, etc.
    • Try cutting holes and/or slits in the parachute fabric.
    • Try different fabric materials.
    Experiments with Parachutes Links:
    Make a Parachute - Science Kids
    Science Projects with Toy Parachutes - Dr. Jean Potvin
    Falling from the Sky - Charlotte Burns
    Parachutes: Is It Surface Area or Shape? - The National Museum of the United States Air Force
    Leonardo's Parachute - National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci
    Leonardo da Vinci: Parachute - The British Library
    Make a Parachute

    General Leonardo da Vinci Links
    Leonardo da Vinci - Museum of Science, Boston
    Leonardo da Vinci - WebMuseum, Paris
    The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci
    Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) - Ben Waggoner

    [1] "'Abbas Ibn Firnas". John H. Lienhard. The Engines of Our Ingenuity. NPR. KUHF-FM Houston. 2004. No. 1910.

    [2] White, Lynn: The Invention of the Parachute, Technology and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 3, (Jul., 1968), pp. 462-467

    [3] John Wilkins (1614 - 1672): Mathematical Magic of the Wonders that may be Performed by Mechanical Geometry, part I: Concerning Mechanical Powers Motion, part II, Deadloss or Mechanical Motions, published in London in 1648).

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    Last updated: June 2013
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