Leonardo was supposed be a fire rescue device

Leonardo da Vinci is well-known as one of the finest artists the world has ever known. But he was also so much more than that. He was the ultimate Renaissance man with a brilliant mind and an amazing and diverse set of talents. A short list of his interests and accomplishments include artist, architect, mathematician, engineer, and scientist and, perhaps best of all, inventor.  Da Vinci used the scientific foundations of Renaissance art — perspective, light, proportions, anatomy and so on — and extended them into almost every aspect of the investigation of nature.

”  He quite literally invented the scientific method a century before Galileo. He believed mathematics was at the center of all things in the natural world. Every invention was based on his idea that a machine was “a new kind of body.” He designed devices based on mathematical laws and developed the unique idea of inventing separate elements of machinery that could be used in more than one device.  Leonardo da Vinci’s use of the scientific method, as illustrated by his revolutionary inventions, became the embodiment of the Renaissance’s scientific revolution and his contributions to engineering still resonate into today’s world. One invention that captured da Vinci’s attention and creativity was the parachute, a safety item very familiar to everyone in the modern world. Although often credited with the actual invention of the parachute, Leonardo da Vinci was not the first to consider the possibility of a parachute. Long before the Renaissance, during medieval times, China was using forms of simple parachutes.

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Historical records located in archives in Beijing , were translated by a French monk, and indicate the use of parachute devices by entertainers at the Chinese Imperial Court. This is not surprising, considering the link between parachutes and the umbrella, which was invented in China. Additionally, prior to da Vinci’s conical parachute designs, another early version of this invention appears in an Italian manuscript in the 1470s. This early design was supposed be a fire rescue device for people who needed to jump from a burning building — something that apparently was never actually put into use. One of the early parachute concepts by da Vinci illustrated in a sketch, shows cloth “pulled tightly over a rigid pyramidal structure.” Even though da Vinci never physically built or tested his idea, history gives him credit for “the concept of lowering man to the earth safely using a maximum drag decelerator.

” As a man always concerned with details, da Vinci’s early ideas were very specific and exuded great confidence. In 1483 he described his original parachute design this way, writing: “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.”  By 1485 da Vinci had combined some of his design ideas   His newer design involved the “use of sealed linen cloth” which was held in place “by a series of wooden poles in a pyramid arrangement.” At 23 feet in height and width, it was like a strangely shaped umbrella — its triangular form a surprising difference from the round shapes used in modern parachutes. A modern skydiver, Adrian Nicholas, built a working model of da Vinci’s design using tools from da Vinci’s time period and tested it. Nicholas described his experience using the device as “smoother than today’s modern parachute.

”  However, another description of this modern test of da Vinci’s design warned that the jump from a “hot-air balloon at 3,000 meters” was dangerous, no matter how smooth, due to the weight of the device at 90 kg. This danger, however, was somewhat mitigated on this test over the South African plains, when the skydiver freed himself at about 600 meters and used a second, modern parachute to complete the descent, preventing the heavy device from striking him upon landing .Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute designs are an excellent example of the way he used scientific methods and principles to engineer and solve problems — such as human flight, or how to safely drop to the ground from a great height.

The impossible, evidently, was just another puzzle to explore and conquer.The impact of the invention of the parachute has been highly significant since da Vinci’s early work, but its development was pretty slow initially. In 1617, Fauste Veranzio, created a device similar to da Vinci’s and jumped from a Venice tower to test it.  Then the idea sat dormant for more than a century. Finally, a pair of balloonists experimented by lowering animals from rooftops; followed by a man, Sebastian Lenormand, who used a 14-foot diameter parachute to jump from a tower. More significantly, however, was the development of a new idea in parachute design. In 1785 Jean Pierre Blanchard was involved in an accident involving a hot-air balloon explosion, prompting him to design a foldable silk parachute, rather than using a bulky and heavy rigid frame (Meyer).

This move toward foldable, silk parachutes quickly became commonplace, abandoning the rigid umbrella-like frames of the past. A hole was added in the top of the canopy to provide more stability and by the late 19th century designs included harnesses and packing the parachute into a container to make them even safer and more useful. At the beginning of the 20th century parachute jumps from an airplane were attempted. Two men claimed to be first.

Grant Morton jumped with his silk parachute “folded in his arms, which he threw out as he left the plane.” The other man, Captain Albert Berry, packed a large, 36 foot parachute below the plane’s fuselage. This parachute included a trapeze bar to hold on to during his descent. By 1914 a woman, Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick made a freefall jump. Initially, the military believed a freefall would cause a person to black out from the force of gravity. But, after a number of freefall jumps were successfully demonstrated and the development of the ripcord added, they were convinced that parachutes were a feasible part of military safety equipment.

 It was war that really began to drive improvements in parachute design. At the beginning of World War I parachutes were not commonly used by the crew of airplanes or balloons, such as Zeppelins. Germany sought to ways to save the lives of their crew members. Parachute design was a logical path for them to explore. A woman parachutist, Kaethe Paulus, designed a parachute that was adopted by their balloon crews.

British and French balloon air crews soon followed suit, adding parachutes in containers stored outside their gondolas. The Americans used designs by the French.  The Germans continued to design modifications, such as the development of a small pilot parachute that deploys prior to the large parachute opening up.World War II introduced modern designs such as the “ribbon parachute” that would deploy at “high speeds and high altitudes.” Additional modifications to parachute design includes the ring slot parachute, used in NASA’s space program on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. The world has come a long way from the simple triangular structure of da Vinci’s early illustrations. His scientific method, demanding close observation and experimentation, has resulted in a long-term domino effect that rippled through time — from the Renaissance to today.

Parachutes are now used in many ways. The military uses parachutes for soldiers, supplies and even equipment. Jet planes use them on aircraft carriers. Space capsules use them for safe landings. Drag racers use them to slow down.

We even use them for fun — skydiving for pleasure or parasailing behind a boat. Leonardo da Vinci’s inventiveness, scientific curiosity and ability to visualize future possibilities certainly embody the Renaissance’s scientific revolution. His invention of the parachute is a reflection of how an idea can become a reality and how great ideas spread across time and grow to become a part of the fabric of the world.


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