In the early days of aviation, the search for a safe way for aviators to exit a crashing plane saw several inventors competing to come up with a workable and practical parachute idea. One of those inventors was the Austrian born Frenchman Franz Reichelt, who thought that he had the solution with his parachute suit. Initial tests with dummies were encouraging, but as he tweaked the design, the success rate plummeted. A more cautious man might have thought to go back to the beginning, when the suit design was bulkier, but seemingly more effective. Reichelt, however, was convinced that the failures were due to insufficient height for his tests, rather than any design flaws.
He eventually convinced the Parisian authorities to allow him to make a test drop from the first platform of the tower. However, for reasons unknown – rumours are that he was under pressure from potential sponsors to make a spectacular demonstration – Reichelt decoded to make the jump himself, rather than use a dummy. Again, the more cautious fellow might have at least done a test drop first, but as we’ve seen, Reichelt was not a cautious man. After arguments with security guards (who sensibly considered this to be a mad folly), at 8.22am on February 4th 1912, he donned his 30 square metre suit – described by Le Temps as “a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk” – bid the assembled crowd “À bientôt“, and jumped off the guard rail.
The results were certainly spectacular, if brief, as the parachute immediately folded around Reichelt and he plunged to the ground. His right arm and leg were crushed, his skull and spine broken. He was, needless to say, very dead. And while it might seem to be, at least, a quick death, it was claimed that his eyes were wide open, frozen in terror. He clearly had all too long to see the error of his plan.
In the days before ‘the scenes were too horrifying to be shown’ approaches to news reporting, Reichelt’s death was caught on film and shown in newsreels, along with helpful footage of the hole in the ground made by his impact.
We can shake our heads at the madness of Reichelt – but we don’t seem to have progressed much further. In 2005, a Norwegian died after making an illegal base-jump from the tower. But the saddest thing about Reichelt’s death is that it was entirely pointless – a year earlier, a dummy had made a successful parachute landing from the very same location. His invention, even if it had worked, was entirely superfluous.