Parachute designs have been around since the 15th century, but in the 1880s, they were still a rare sight, so it’s hard to say what inspired 10-year-old John Murray, a poor boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to design his own parachute. According to a later account in the San Francisco Examiner, the boy took “a piece of tissue paper, some twine, and an exceedingly disgruntled cat, undesired in the neighborhood” and fashioned a parachute, then dropped the surly aeronaut off a high bridge. As the tissue canopy filled with air and the parachute glided off for half a mile, the boy could see his future.
At 13, Murray made his first ascent with a hot-air balloon. He planned to ride the balloon down as the air cooled. But once in the sky, he found the balloon was ablaze, most likely due to a spark from the wood fire that supplied the hot air. The boy climbed up the balloon and used his coat and a sand bag to put the fire out. He landed unharmed, but the close call must have reinforced his respect for a dedicated method that would bring someone down safely from a great height.
By age 16, he had taken the stage name Charles Broadwick, and was performing in venues like fairs and resorts, and entertaining crowds with an act in which he would ascend with a balloon and float back down with a parachute.
The preparation was as much a part of the show as the ascent and drop. A crowd watched as the 90-foot-high balloon, filled with hot smoke, fought to rise. A dozen or more strong men held down its tethers. Meanwhile, Broadwick inspected his parachute rig, stretched on the ground. The apparatus was simple, and weighed about 40 to 45 pounds. The canopy was made of heavy muslin strips that were stitched together lengthwise to form a dome.
The rim of the dome was connected by suspension lines to a trapeze, which the parachutist would grasp. The limp canopy was suspended from the bottom of the balloon by a rope, which ran through a mechanism with a blade embedded in it. When the aeronaut was ready to cut the parachute free, he would tug on a long cord attached to the blade, severing the rope and releasing the parachute from the balloon.
Once the parachute was inspected and the balloon filled, Broadwick would duck into his nearby tent and don his spangled tights. He would then ring a loud bell, dash out to the balloon-and-chute rig, grasp the trapeze bar, and shout, “Let go!” The men released the ropes and the balloon shot up, with Broadwick running briefly until the balloon pulled the parachute and him aloft. Upon reaching a height sufficient to ensure the parachute would fill with air as it dropped, Broadwick would cut himself and his parachute free.
Relieved of its weight, the balloon would twist over, belching out black smoke, and fall to the ground. Briefly, Broadwick would plummet—eliciting gasps from the pompadoured ladies and bowler-hatted men. But as the chute filled with air, his speed would slow, and the canopy would waft him—usually gently—to the ground.
Although aeronauts ballyhooed the risks, sometimes parachuting from a hot-air balloon really was “death-defying.” In fact, in 1905, Broadwick watched his beautiful companion, known as Maude Broadwick, fall to her death after getting caught up in the balloon’s tethers. Another common danger was ascending in a closed area. The aeronaut—suspended 30 or 40 feet beneath the balloon—could be slammed against nearby buildings or trees, and seriously injured or killed.
In 1906, Broadwick demonstrated an ingenious solution he had devised to protect the parachutist from such dangers. He simply folded the canopy and its suspension lines into a pack, which he then strapped to his back. Broadwick ascended while tethered directly to the balloon—just 12 feet below it, rather than 40.
What deployed the parachute was a lightweight cord called a static line. One end of this line was attached to the balloon, and the other to the peak of the parachute canopy. As the jumper left the balloon, his weight would pull the static line taut, and yank the parachute from the pack. The line would then snap, and the canopy, filled with air, would float the aeronaut to earth.