History Behind The Card: First Parachute Display, 1837
Card #5 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Sophie Blanchard, March 25, 1778 in La Rochelle, France –July 6, 1819, Paris, France;
- Robert Cocking, 1776 – July 24, 1837, North Brixton, England, Great Britain.
Although it might not look like it on the surface, this is one interesting card. It became interesting after I researched into the events described on the back of this particular tobacco card.
Although this Wills’s tobacco card celebrates the first parachute display in 1837, it fails to mention that the display was hardly successful. As well, the majority of the material on the card’s reverse discusses the first female balloonist, as well as the first death of a female balloonist before celebrating the whole parachute thing.
I’ll get to the parachuting in a moment, because, like Wills’s, it’s ladies first.
The reverse of the tobacco card discusses Madame Sophie Blanchard, recognized as the first female professional balloonist. Widowed from famed balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard (see HERE for more on that ‘fine’ fellow), she made more than 60 flights, losing consciousness and nearly freezing to death on a few occasions from flying too high. Despite the dangers of pioneer flight, it wasn’t the failure of a balloon that caused her death.
On July 6, 1819, Madame Blanchard was participating at an exhibition at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris and was aloft in her balloon. What possessed her to do it, we can only guess, but she set fireworks off which in turn ignited the
helium hydrogen (thanks to Dean B. (see comment below) for correcting me) gas in her balloon.
In the subsequent fall, the balloon and basket crashed into the roof of a house tipping her out where she then fell to her death becoming the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident. It’s like something out of cartoon.
As for Robert Cocking… well, the man was brave… I’ll give him that.
During the early part of the 1800’s, ballooning also meant parachuting for many a daredevil at various aeronautical exhibitions around the world. As a professional watercolor artist and amateur scientist Robert Cocking sought to improve on a parachute design after witnessing André-Jacques Garnerin (1769 – 1823) who was the inventor of the frameless parachute descend in 1802.
I have no idea how being an amateur scientist and watercolor artist makes a man think he could make a proper parachute, but I suppose it’s not different from a guy who can’t fly to write a blog about aviation.
On July 24, 1837, Cocking arranged a trial of his improved parachute at the Vauxhall Gardens in London by convincing the owners of the balloon—the ‘Royal Nassau’—that they could benefit from the publicity his parachute jump would bring in.
On the Wills’s tobacco card, it is indeed the Royal Nassau balloon ascending above the Vauxhall Gardens.
Cocking’s parachute was built in a funnel-shape (an inverted cone) that was connected with three hoops from which he hung a basket underneath to ride up in. The whole contraption was attached to the underside of the balloon.
Cocking can be seen on the Wills’s card in that basket waving to people below.
Upon reaching 1,524-meters (5,000-feet), Cocking released his parachute from the balloon.
In retrospect, it was apparent that Cocking had failed to take into account the weight of his parachute—113.4-kilograms (250-pounds), as the parachute plummeted quickly, ripping itself apart before crashing to the ground and killing him.
On the surface, it seems obvious to even the casual observer of physics that having a 250-pound parachute would be the chief factor in Cocking’s death.
However, you might be surprised to discover that the chief factor in Cocking’s death was actually his inability to sew properly.
Yup… poor stitching of the parachute’s fabric holding the strips together was found to be key.
Although not brought up at that time, I should also like to point out that at the time of his death, Cocking was 61-years-of-age and had no previous experience in parachuting.
I love the fact that the Wills’s card describes Cocking’s descent as something positive – it’s the first real parachute display. But honestly, it’s more like a display on how not to make a parachute.
While I would describe the whole card an erroneous waste, the circumstances surrounding the death’s of these two brave people are somewhat comic.