Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912) was an Austrian-born French tailor who had been fascinated with flight since childhood. After the invention of the airplane, he sought to invent a device that would allow pilots to parachute safely to the ground should they run into trouble aloft. His efforts were spurred on when, in 1911, the Aero Club de France offered a 10,000 Franc prize to the first inventor of a successful parachute.
Reichelt’s design took the form of a suit featuring a cloak with a big silken hood, which weighed about 20 pounds and had a surface area of around 340 square feet. He tested the design several times on dummies thrown out of his 5th-floor apartment, but without success.
Despite the repeated failures, he petitioned the Paris police for permission to test his invention on a dummy from the Eiffel Tower, and securing a permit, he proceeded to drum up interest among journalists and the public to witness the test at 8 AM, February 4th, 1912. On the appointed day, Reichelt arrived wearing his parachute suit to be met by a crowd of onlookers gathered at the Eiffel Tower, cordoned off the drop zone.
Accompanied by journalists, he then ascended the tower, while two film crews positioned themselves, one on the ground to catch the drop from the tower, and another at the tower to film the dummy being thrown. People were perplexed however because they could see no dummy, and it gradually dawned that Reichelt had not brought one, but intended to test his design by jumping off the tower in person.
A guard stopped him initially, but Reichelt convinced him to let him proceed. Friends and journalists also tried to talk him out of it but to no avail. Climbing the stairs, he paused to give the crowd a cheery “A bientot!“, before continuing to the tower’s first deck. There, as the cameras rolled and people shouted at him to stop, he climbed on a stool placed atop a table adjacent to the guardrail and jumped at 8:22 AM.
The suit was a flop, literally and figuratively, and he fell about 200 feet to his death on the frozen ground below, with an impact that left a 6-inch crater and crushed his spine and skull. Unbeknownst to him, just two days earlier, an American had successfully parachuted 225 feet from the Statue of Liberty, using what would become the standard half-spherical backpack parachute.