Parachute Designed and Invented Button for link to Chinese version of this page

Mass attracts mass through the force of gravity. Large masses, such as planets, and most significantly our planet Earth, attract small masses (such as people). Thus, we are affected by this force of gravity that causes any objects with weight to free fall to the ground if the object is not influenced by the friction/density force of the air (air resistance/atmospheric drag). The principal of the parachute (降落傘) is to utilize the mechanical force of the air (atmospheric drag) to let a person or any object reduce its speed of falling toward the earth so it can land on the ground safely.

The idea of parachute making came from the well known Italian master Leonardo da Vinci. He designed the first sketch of a parachute in the mid 1480s (probably 1485), which is the first documentation of this idea in western history. However, the idea or using air resistance to slow a fall goes back much earlier. We can trace this principal back to the ancient periods of China. In 90 B.C., according to the book Si Ji 《史記》(Historical Records) written by a famous Chinese historian Si Ma Chian (司馬遷) who lived during the Western Han dynasty, there was a legend which described how the emperor Shun () nearly 2000 years before the Han Dynasty (4000 years past the present) use a sort of parachute to survive a fall. Shun's father Gu Sou (瞽叟) intended to kill him by forcing him to get on top of a roof and then burning him to death. Fortunately Shun held two large bamboo hats to escape from the roof and land on the ground safely. This is the principal of using bamboo hats to increase air resistance to reduce the falling speed. Then later on in 200 B.C., there were acrobats performing stunts of great falls using something similar to parachutes during their acrobatics in the palaces of the early Han Emperors. Hence the invention of the parachute was for performances to entertain one emperor in China or to escape from another (murderous) emperor.

Then in 1180 a group of sojourning expatriate Arabian businessmen in Guang Dong, China, built a local mosque. One day a thief climbed to top of the roof and stole one leg of a gold rooster. He successfully achieved his plan and jumped from the roof, landing on the ground holding tightly to two umbrellas without the handles. There are also historical accounts from 1308 indicating that again the acrobatics of the parachute activities appeared in the palace of the Yuan Emperor. In 1650 the parachute was being used in Siam (modern Thailand), which was outside of Chinese territory. In 1783 a French adventurist named Louis-Sebastien Lenormand successfully landing on the ground from a high tower top using a sort of parachute. He named his object, which Chinese had been using for more than a thousand years, a parachute. After Lenormand, there came more adventurists who tried to challenge gravity with this skydiving activity from greater hights using such means as hot air balloons and airplanes for their jumps.


Links about Parachutes:
  1. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci are available in the Jean Paul Richter translation of 1888 at Project Gutenberg. The sketch of the parachute is in the Second Volume on page 1126. (Originally in Codex Atlanticus on folio 381)
  2. Dave Gold was a parachute expert who wrote articles about parachute history. His papers are collected at Wright State University's library.
  3. Lynn White, Jr. had an article about the Invention of the Parachute in the July 1968 issue of Technology and Culture (pages 462-467) and pointed out that there were sketches of parachutes 15 years before Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch.
  4. The Parachute History website.
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