TRAGEDY OF THE BIRDMAN
France played an important role in the early history of aviation. But when Franz Reichelt jumped from the Eiffel Tower by parachute, he secured a place in history for all the wrong reasons, as Katie Jarvis explains
Learn about Franz Reichelt and his parachute jump from the Eiffel Tower.
It’s a strange thing, prescience... Watching the grainy, blotchy, jerky (fascinating) British Pathé newsreel of a world in black and white; knowing that you are trespassing on the last moments of a man’s life.
To begin with, this man is standing there in front of you, his handlebar moustache giving him the slightly raffish air of a dandy. There are few clues, at first, as to why these early cameras are trained on him: for a second, your eyes wander to the unlit gas lamps in the Parisian background; to the skeletal winter trees, fogged by the film’s age.
But then, as this man graciously turns this way and that, you realise he is inviting you to look a little more closely at the backpack he is wearing that bulks and squares his shoulders to Superman proportions. Then, instead of berating you for your morbid curiosity, this man politely doffs his cap at you, as if taking his leave.
When next you see him, he has ascended way, way up. From his vantage-point – high on the Eiffel Tower – the trees lie like stalks of grass beneath him. His backpack has been opened out into a parachute that surrounds him like a shroud; and he is standing on a stool, which, in turn, is balanced on a table. The scene has a dauntingly precarious look to it that, perhaps, is reflected in the man’s downcast face. His feet are now level with the guard-rail that normally protects the viewing public from the terrifying drop the other side.
A moment later (surely he realises what we all know! Surely he understands that the flimsy cloth to which he is entrusting his life will bury, not save, him!), he flaps his arms, experimentally; and edges his way on to the narrow rail that separates him and thin air.
He places his foot tentatively on to its rim. He pauses. He edges. He pauses. He jumps. There is no resistance to the inexorable force of gravity to which he cedes. He mimics no feather. He is a stone.
It is February 1912. The following month, a dying Robert Falcon Scott will write “for God’s sake look after our people” as a brutal Antarctic blizzard buries him and his defeated companions. In April, a liner on her maiden voyage will collide with an iceberg.
But the birdman, whose plummet to earth is just long enough for the knowledge to penetrate, will know nothing of these things.
In 1879, in the town of Štetí – which lies around 60 kilometres to the north of Prague – the Reichelt family was celebrating the birth of a son, Franz. Who knows what dreams these parents had for their new progeny; but this was certainly an age for soaring dreams. Flight – the once-mythical ability to mimic the birds – was taking off; and much of it was happening a thousand kilometres away, in France.
As he grew up, the young Franz would have been well aware of the craze for ballooning that had begun a century before. In June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers had launched an unmanned hot-air balloon in the marketplace of their hometown, Annonay in Ardèche. Three months later, at Versailles, they successfully launched a balloon containing a sheep, a rooster and a duck, to the amazement of an audience graced with the presence of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
That year, the achievements came thick and fast: in November, the
brothers set afloat a balloon with humans aboard (though not the condemned criminals the King had suggested). And on 1 December, a crowd of 400,000 watched, agog, as JacquesCharles and Nicolas-louis Robert climbed into a hydrogen balloon in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris and ascended to 45 metres, landing a couple of hours later 36 kilometres away in Nesles-la-vallée.
Franz’s dream was different. A talented tailor, he left his homeland and arrived in Paris at the age of 19, settling in an apartment in Rue Gaillon in the 2nd arrondissement. Hard-working and determined, he established a successful dressmaking business, becoming a naturalised Frenchman in 1909. But it wasn’t just cloth and thread that filled his head. Franz (also known as François) had studied the wings of a bat, and he was convinced that in their unique webbing lay the secret he longed to discover: how to glide through the air.
His was a clever idea: it is no coincidence that bats come from the order called Chiroptera – the Greek word for hand-wing. In fact, a bat’s wing resembles a human arm and hand much more than it does a bird’s wing. Franz took this principle and wove it into a prototype safety-suit designed for early aviators. In an emergency, it would billow out, like the wings of a bat, when deployed in mid-air; between times, its relative elegance would allow the pilot as much free movement as possible to control his aircraft.
Franz, of course, was not the first to create a parachute. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci had made a rudimentary sketch of one in a notebook. And Frenchman Jean-pierre Blanchard not only made several successful jumps using one of his own invention, but coined the very word ‘parachute’ in 1785, derived from a Latin/french root meaning ‘against a fall’.
But parachutes, up until then, had used fixed canopies; Franz’s relied on a canopy that could be stowed away within a hood of silk, released by the wearer extending their arms. Franz began by testing it on dummies, launched from the fifth floor of his apartment building. The story goes that, when Paris’s head of police finally granted him permission to test his invention from the Eiffel Tower, the official believed Franz would be using yet another tailor’s mannequin. How wrong he was. On the day of the jump, Franz revealed, “Je veux tenter l’expérience moi-même et sans chiqué, car je tiens à bien prouver la valeur de mon invention.” (“I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”)
Undoubtedly, Franz was feeling optimistic, even as he made out his last will and testament the day before. At 32, he was unmarried, but – thanks to his thriving business – had assets to distribute in case of his death. How likely that death seemed to him is uncertain; but we do know, as he signed his paperwork, that newspaper boys were yelling on the streets of Paris that a steeplejack by the name of Frederick Law had parachuted more than 65 metres from the raised hand of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Law had landed heavily; but he had limped away, declaring his feat a success.
Law seemed to have jumped on a whim. For Franz, there was a lot more at stake. A certain Colonel Lalance had offered a prize of 10,000 francs (a satisfying amount: Franz’s apartment cost him 1,500 francs a year in rent) for the successful invention of a lightweight parachute for aviators. Since the Wright brothers had pioneered the modern airplane less than a decade earlier, there had been a veritable rush to the skies, including by the military; but safety devices were still lacking.
Media interest was high as – early on the wintry morning of 4 February – Franz showed off his contraption to the British Pathé cameramen, who huddled in the cold alongside some 30 other journalists. He had already patented his unique garment, with its idiosyncratic
Franz had studied the wings of a bat, and he was convinced that in their unique webbing lay the secret of how to glide through the air
silk hood. Tests had been somewhat inconclusive, but Franz told friends that was simply because no platform had been high enough. Today would be different: he would put it through its paces himself from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, a height of nearly 60 metres.
The expectant crowd was held back by the police as Franz and two friends began the steady climb up. There are various reports as to what happened next. Some say he had second thoughts and, initially, refused to go ahead; but pressure from those watching forced him on. Others declare he was confident and determined.
Certainly, he looks hesitant in those final frames. He didn’t know that his chute was far too small to save his life. But he probably suspected that his jump was premature; that another dummy test, at least, would have been advisable.
You can see, as he places a foot on the guard rail, that he is willing himself on. He looks down; he glances up; he makes to jump.
And then, after unbearable seconds more, Franz Reichelt tumbles more than leaps. Down into oblivion.
The ground was frozen on that winter’s day but, even so, the crater that Reichelt left was 14 centimetres deep. His canopy had, indeed, begun to open, but far too late to save him. Some say he died of a heart attack on the way down, though his injuries indicated otherwise. The newspaper Le Figaro noted that, in death, his eyes were wide open, as if in terror.
Franz Reichelt achieved one of his goals: he won a place in history. Millions have seen the footage of his leap from the Eiffel Tower; and many lives have been saved by the invention of the parachute. His, sadly, was not one of them.
You can see footage of Franz Reichelt’s tragic jump on the British Pathé website at britishpathe.com
ABOVE: A frame from the British Pathé newsreel footage, showing Franz Reichelt moments before his fatal parachute jump from the Eiffel Tower in 1912
ABOVE: A contemporary illustration of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon