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New Parachute Inventor Plunges to Death

On February 22, 1911, Gaston Hervieu climbed the Eiffel Tower to test a new parachute for pilots. He checked the wind, took a nervous breath, and began the test. His silk parachute filled with air, then sailed safely to the ground. Hervieu did not make the jump himself; he used a 160-pound test dummy. To one man this was an outrage. Franz Reichelt was an Austrian tailor who was developing a parachute of his own. He denounced Hervieu's use of a dummy as a "sham" and, one year later, on the morning of Sunday, February 4, 1912, arrived at the Eiffel Tower to conduct his own experiment.

As Reichelt posed for pictures he announced, "I am so convinced my device will work properly that I will jump myself." Gaston Hervieu pulled him aside and tried to stop him. Hervieu claimed there were technical reasons why Reichelt's parachute would not work. The two men had a heated discussion until, finally, Reichelt walked away.

Modern parachutes use 700 square feet of fabric and should be deployed only above 250 feet; Reichelt's parachute used less than 350 square feet of fabric, and he deployed it at 187 feet. He had neither the surface area nor the altitude needed to make a successful jump. Hervieu was not the only one who had told Reichelt that his parachute suit would not work. It had also been rejected by a team of experts who told him, "The surface of your device is too small. You will break your neck."

He not only ignored experts, he also ignored his own data. He tested his parachute using dummies, and they crashed. He tested his parachute by jumping thirty feet into a haystack, and he crashed. He tested his parachute by jumping twenty feet without a haystack, and he crashed and broke his leg. Instead of changing his invention, he clung to his bad idea in the face of all evidence and advice.

Reichelt fell for four seconds, accelerating constantly, until he hit the ground at sixty miles an hour, making a cloud of frost and dust and a dent six inches deep. He was killed on impact.

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