Monday, February 7, 2011

Take a parachute and jump

One of the days in my life that I will never forget, is the day when, at the age of 20, I jumped with a parachute at a height of 800 meters above the ground. During a one day training I had learned in theory how to open the main parachute, which was a round type, when to open the reserve and most important how to land on the ground in a rolling mouvement. Quite exciting .. until I had to enter that little airplane for the real thing which was ... even more exciting.

detail from share showing the balloon with safety parachute invented by Louis Capazza
Capazza's balloon with safety parachute
image colors and contrast edited
in order to emphasize the underprint

Louis Capazza, aeronaut and inventor
The 1897 share of the Société Anonyme Panmétallophile (Brevets CAPAZZA) shows a highly unusual image in the underprint : a balloon basket attached to a parachute. The idea looks strange, but that is what is actually shown. The idea was used by Louis Capazza (Bastia, 1862 - Paris, 1928), a pioneering French aeronaut. Aeronauts are persons that glide through the air in a balloon or a dirigible (also known as an 'airship') . There is an essential difference between both vehicles. A balloon is pushed forward by the wind. A dirigible is a self-propelled and steerable balloon.
Louis Capazza was the first one that crossed the Mediterranean with a balloon from Marseille to Corsica in 1886. In 1907 the French manufacturer of airships and aircraft engines Adolphe Clément asked Capazza to work with him to produce the 'planeur Bayard-Clément', an early glider eventually sold to the Tsar of Russia. Capazzza was one of the founders of the Aéroclub de Belgique. He was the first one to cross the Channel in a dirigible, 1910.

André-Jacques Garnerin's parachute descent
 in Parc Monceau 1797
source Wikipedia

The combination of a parachute and a balloon was not new. Already in 1797, the Frenchman André-Jacques Garnerin invented the frameless parachute. To test his parachute, Garnerin rode in a basket which was attached to a parachute which was in turn attached to a balloon, 1797.

Louis Capazza wanted to further improve the safety of ballooning because there were potential risks involved. One of the risks was a balloon explosion when climbing too fast in the atmosphere. When rising rapidly, the atomospheric pressure lowers, causing the gas in the balloon to expand. This causes the balloon material to stretch to a point where it pops.

The idea of a man using a parachute was already known to Leonardo Da Vinci, but Capazza realized that a parachute could also be used for a balloon. Before the balloon was inflated, he had it covered with a parachute that was also attached to the basket. In case of a problem with the balloon, one could safely descend in the basket by means of the parachute. That was how the system was designed. Capazza demonstrated the concept more than once succesfully. After rising at a certain height, he deliberately let the balloon deflate and descended safely back on the ground in a controlled way. His demo's made him quite famous.

Capazza's balloon with safety parachute
1. The balloon "in normal operation", covered by the parachute.
2. The deflated balloon, the parachute at work.
source: G. Tissandier, Le parachute de Capazza,
La Nature - Revue des sciences et de leurs applications aux arts et à l'industrie, 1892

I already mentioned the danger of rising too fast, here above. Well, Capazza added an extra solution to the concept. An extra bag with a folded parachute was attached to the balloon basket. In a situation where a balloon was rising too fast, the ballooner was supposed to drop the openend parachute which would act as giant airbrake.

Capazza, a man of many talents
After working at the French Railways, he entered the Service of the Geological Survey in 1883. There he studied the problems relating to the installation of the railway network of Corsica. He became financial adviser in Morocco, member of the Council of the French Bank of Africa,  played a certain diplomatic role at the time of the Franco-German disagreement in Morocco, and eventually became administrator of the company Radio-France.

certificate for 5 shares of the Panmétallophile (Brevents Capazza) company
Société Anonyme Panmétallophile (Brevets CAPAZZA)
5 Shares of 100 Francs, 1897
printed by Imprimerie-Lithographie du Messager de Bruxelles
Between 1892 and 1898 Capazza stayed in Belgium, working with several companies on some of his smaller inventions.  One of these was the Panmétallophile company, founded to exploit a patent for the process of fabricating "panmétallophile". The company was constituted by deed executed before notary Charles-Constant D'Huvettere in Ypres. The share capital of the company was divided in 10000 shares of 100 Francs with 8750 of them owned by Capazza. 

Panmétallophile was the name of a kind of paper that could reproduce the streak of metals. When a mineral is finely ground, it leaves a streak (stripe) of the mineral powder. A simple way to determine the streak of a mineral is to rub an edge across a porcelain plate which often yields an unexpected color. 

Let me finish my story about my parachute jump. After a full day of theoretical training, we put on our parachute and headed for the airplane. The straps of the parachute were so firmly tightened around my thighs, that walking was painfull. We took off from the airport of Moorsele, Belgium. Oh yes, my legs were shaky and my heart was pounding. A few minutes later I was dangling high up in the air. The view was fantastic. I dared to make one 360 degree turn. Because of the sunny weather, I could clearly see the terrils, waste coal heaps, around the region of Lille in France. A minute later, was it more or less, I landed safely on the ground. But one of my colleagues broke a leg.


Reference links

  • Remarkable improvements in ballooning, Evening Post, Octobre 1896, see here (National Library of New Zealand)
  • Clément-Bayard No.1, see here (Wikipedia)
  • Le parachute de M. Capazza, La Nature, 1892, see here
  • Da Vinci's parachute flies, BBC News, June 2000, see here  

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