Archive for February 6th, 2012

100th Anniversary Of A Very Bad Idea

- February 6th, 2012

Eiffel-Franz-Reichelt

 

Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of a very important event in the life of Parisian tailor Franz Reichelt — his death.

 

You have to give Franz Reichelt credit for having the courage of his convictions.

 

But apart from that one has to think: “You should have used the dummy, dummy.”

 

As I said, this story is about Franz Reichelt’s death, so it’s not really funny.

 

In fact, it’s kind of sad and I do feel sympathy for the little tailor of Paris.

 

But the freaking stupidity of Reichelt’s grand exit is so huge as to take his death out of the realm of common human tragedy and thrust it, like a crazily malfunctioning rocket, into the stratosphere of Really Dumb Ideas — not worth the price of popcorn (let alone a human life) but awesome in its incandescent, singleminded lunacy.

 

Now Reichelt’s motivating idea — to design an effective, compact, wearable parachute for use by flyers when their rickety nouveau airplanes were in trouble — was not the Really Dumb Idea. I think we’d all agree that was a Good Idea.

 

(Of course, the Really Good part of the Idea wasn’t really Reichelt’s anyway — people had been tinkering around with the concept of parachutes for hundreds of years and had gotten really serious in the decade since airplanes had become  a reality.)

 

No, Reichelt’s monumental, self-destructive stupidity lay in HOW he went about trying to implement the concept.

 

Reichelt decided to demonstrate the viability of his parachute suit by wearing it WHEN HE JUMPED OFF THE EIFFEL TOWER. I think you know how that turned out.

eiffel

As I said before, Reichelt wasn’t much for original ideas: Almost a full year earlier, Gaston Hervieu had successfully demonstrated his much better parachute design in a public display at the Eiffel Tower. But Hervieu had used a dummy for his demonstration and Reichelt had his heart set on a little one-upsmanship.

Parachute-dummy-Hervieu-Eiffel-Tower-Feb

Reichelt too had used dummies for his earlier tests of the parachute suit — with mixed results. And he had jumped himself from heights equivalent to three- and four-storey buildings — with generally disastrous results (two attempts leading to hospital stays and one disaster averted by the presence of a convenient haystack).

 

You would think at that point that Reichelt would understand that his parachute  had inherent design flaws, but that isn’t the way Reichelt’s mind worked. No, Reichelt firmly believed that the silk canopy built into his suit simply had not had enough time to deploy properly: He needed more height and all would be well.

 

Reichelt, by the way, was trying to win the 10,000-franc prize put up by l’Aero-Club de France in 1911 for the best design of a lightweight, compact parachute that aviators could wear while flying their flimsy crates. The deadline for that competition was drawing near, so Reichelt needed to make a dramatic showing to grab the prize. Plus he was a bit of an egomaniac who wanted fame and adulation.

 

All of which led our little tailor to the base of la Tour Eiffel  on that cold Sunday morning of Feb. 4, 1912.

 

eiffel-tower

 

After months of pestering, Reichelt had finally been granted permission a few days earlier by the Paris Prefecture of Police to conduct his parachute experiment — with a dummy.

 

At least that’s what Louis Lepine, the Prefect of Police, said later. Who knows.

 

The bottom line is that Franz Reichelt showed up at the Eiffel Tower about 7 a.m. wearing the parachute suit. He was accompanied by two friends (who later said they had expected the demo to be conducted with a dummy — but, guys, really … there was no dummy in the car and Franz was wearing the suit) and a horde of reporters and photographers who had been tipped to the jump by Reichelt the previous day.

 

Among the onlookers were two camera crews for the Gaumont and Pathe newsreel movie companies. So, yes, we do have film footage of Reichelt leap into the history books.

 

One camera was on the ground to get the overall view, while another camera was set up on the Eiffel Tower observation deck to get closeups of the preparations and eventual launch of Reichelt’s demonstration.

 

Here’s the most common version of the Reichelt’s fateful jump, primarily using Gaumont newsreel footage.

 

Sad, senseless and a little sordid — but done with quickly. And soon overshadowed by the much vaster stupidity and monstrous infliction of death of the First World War.

 

But this other film stock, the Pathe version of Reichelt’s jump, is much more poignant and much, much sadder because it puts us right there with Reichelt as he stands on a chair on a table at the railing of the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant preparing to fling himself to his fate.

franzreichelt-ready

The saddest thing by far as you watch this newsreel is to see Reichelt repeatedly try to make the jump and then pull himself back at the last millisecond. He knew this was a Really Bad Idea, he knew he had made a terrible mistake — but he just could not bring himself to step down from the chair and the table and face the jeers and derision of all those people he had called out to witness his great success.

franzreichelt-steady

So he jumped.

plunge

The stubborn, sad little tailor of Paris threw himself and his totally useless handmade silk parachute suit into the void of that Paris morning. And died three seconds later when his body, wrapped in its silk burial shroud, crashed into the frozen earth at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

 

So we have just passed the centenary mark of …what? A stupid and basically inconsequential death? There have been so many of those in the past 100 years. A vain and deluded fit of bravado? A case of an anti-Icarus hoist on his own petard of hubris?

 

Perhaps his death is just a lesson for the rest of us, especially when we’re young and more liable to do really stupid things. (I still remember flying backwards through the air from a third-floor balcony, thinking “I’m going to die or be paralyzed for life.” Conveniently situated bushes limited the damage to wounds that would heal.)

 

If you realize something is a Really Bad Idea, don’t do it! Much better to be laughed at as a living fool than to be pitied later as a dead fool.

 

Of course, people keep flinging themselves off the Eiffel Tower, despite Franz Reichelt’s bad example.

base-jumping

Some of them are illegal BASE jumpers (one died) and a few have been sanctioned stunts (such as the jump for the 1985 James Bond movie A View To A Kill). And then there’s professional inline skater Taig Khris who, in May 2010, who jumped from the same level of the tower from which Franz Reichelt jumped.

a-view-to-a-kill

Of course, Khris only plunged 10 metres through the air (only 10 metres?) before hitting a 30-metre-high ramp and skidding into a giant air bag. Here’s a link to a TV news report on the stunt.

Traig-Khris-inline-pro-skater-2010

But stupid is stupid, so Taig Khris is the current holder of the Franz Reichelt Memorial Shoulda-Used-A-Dummy, Dummy Trophy.

 

Remember, kids: Don’t try this at home — or at the Eiffel Tower. It’s too beautiful. So is life.

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