On This Day: Franz Reichelt filmed jumping to his death from Eiffel Tower in first ever parachute suit test

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Franz Reichelt filmed jumping to his death from Eiffel Tower in first ever parachute suit test

JAN 4, 1912: Reckless inventor Franz Reichelt was filmed jumping to his death from the Eiffel Tower after testing the world’s first parachute suit on this day in 1912.

The 33-year-old Austrian-born tailor plunged onto frozen soil and died instantly after the canopy failed to open in time when he leaped from the 187ft-high first platform.

He initially planned to use a dummy – but when he arrived at the 1,063ft-tall Paris landmark he sensationally revealed to waiting journalists that he would jump himself.

Friends urged Reichelt not to jump – but he responded: 'I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.'

Since their 1873 development, the earliest parachutes had all been rudimentary designs with fixed canopies that were already open before the jump began.

Silent British Pathé footage shows Reichelt showing off his very different design, which concealed a folded-up canopy in an aviator suit made with 320sq ft of fabric.

He was then filmed perched on the edge of the first of three platforms on what was the world’s tallest structure until New York’s Chrysler Building was erected in 1930.

He then leapt – and while another camera on the soil filmed the fall – and plunged to onto frozen soil with visibly tremendous force as ice particles sprayed into the air.

The canopy had begun to open – but it was too late to prevent his fatal impact.

His right leg and arm were crushed, his skull and spine broken, and that the Le Petit Parisien newspaper reported that he was bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears.

Their rival Le Figaro noted that his eyes were wide open, dilated with terror.

The British Pathé footage, which was one of the earliest filmed records of a high-profile tragedy, only shows policemen hauling his limp body into an ambulance.

Despite having clearly died, bachelor Reichelt was taken to hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead.

The following day, newspapers around the world covered the 'tragic experiment' of the 'mad genius' who had moved to Paris at age 19 and was also known as François.

He is thought to have been inspired to jump himself – rather than use the dummy as planned – after U.S. steeplejack Frederick Law successfully parachuted 223ft from the New York’s Statue of Liberty using a conventional canopy.

Hitherto, Reichelt had mixed success after sending dummies wearing the parachute suit off 50ft-tall five story buildings – and blamed the lack of height for the failure.


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He had spent a year persuading Paris police chief Louis Lepine to allow him to use the Eiffel Tower to test his canopy made of silk supported by rods and rubber.

Lepine, who a year earlier had also been embarrassed by the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, was later forced to explain that he had not permitted a human jump.


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Later in 1912 Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov successfully tested the world’s first fully functioning knapsack parachute, which finally made jumping relatively safe.

But Reichelt’s efforts had not been entirely in vain as by the 1990s the first working wingsuits were developed.

The Eiffel Tower continues to hold allure for those wanting to BASE jump – parachuting without a plane - and there is tight security.

Norwegian Olov Axel Kappfjell, 31, whose brother was killed in a similar manner, was the first person after Reichelt to die parachuting from the landmark.

However, other jumps have been successful, including another sanctioned one for the 1985 James Bond film A View To A Kill.

Yet, even without a working canopy, it is still possible to survive a plunging to earth from a great height.
Former Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulvovic holds the unwitting record for the highest fall without a parachute after the plane she was on blew up in mid-air in 1972.

The then 22-year-old plummeted to the ground in the tail section of Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 after a suspected bomb ripped it apart over what was then Czechoslovakia.

Luckily, the segment landed at just the right angle on a snowy mountain slope of Srbska Kaminice in modern day Czech Republic.