By the dawn of the 19th century, ballooning had become a staple of popular culture. No féte or celebration was complete without at least one ascent. Aeronauts, both male and female, rose majestically from pleasure grounds and gardens all over Europe. Tivoli Gardens in Paris, was one of the most popular spots for this entertainment and soon became the playground of the “flying” Garnerin family.
Andre-Jacques Garnerin was the greatest French aeronaut to follow J.P. Blanchard, and during his aerostatic career he was accompanied and abetted by his wife Jeanne-Genevieve (the first woman parachutist, 1798) and niece Elisa (who learned to fly balloons at age 15 and became the first professional parachutist, making 39 parachute descents from 1815 to 1836).
Garnerin had made his first balloon ascent from Metz in 1787, but the French Revolution interrupted his career. “Citizen Garnerin” joined the army on the Northern front and was taken prisoner by the English during the Napoleonic War. They handed him over to the Austrians who then imprisoned him in the fortress of Buda, in Hungary for nearly 3 years.
Garnerin had heard of Blanchard’s experiments with parachutes, and during his long confinement he contemplated constructing such a device and using it to escape from the fortress prison. He never had to opportunity to put this dream into execution, but resolved to make a parachute jump when he gained his liberty.
After his release, Garnerin returned to Paris where he resumed his aeronautical career and embarked on a bold experiment, which culminated in the first parachute jump, at the park of Monceau on October 22, 1797. After rising in his aerostatic balloon to a height of 3,000 ft., Garnerin climbed into a detachable gondola, then released it and began to plummet before his “parasol” shaped canopy opened–fluttering and oscillating unstably toward the ground. Garnerin landed roughly, sustaining a sprained ankle upon impact — but the descent had been a success.
In 1798, Garnerin repeated his parachuting feat at Tivoli Gardens in Paris, after making some much needed design changes in his 30 ft in diameter “parasol”, which helped to provide a smoother descent. He performed numerous others parachute descents in the next few years, aided and abetted by his wife and niece. In 1802, during the short peace between England and France, Garnerin came to England and made a number of balloon ascents from Vauxhaull and Chelsea Gardens in London and other locations around the country. During an ascent in London on August 3, 1802, in preparation for his next jump, Garnerin released a small parachute with a kitten suspended beneath. The parachute floated gently to earth, without the kitten having to spend one of its nine lives.
On September 21, 1802, Garnerin repeated his history making parachute descent; this time over London, taking off from the Volunteer Ground, Grosvenor Square. After reaching a height of almost 10,000 feet, he climbed into his parachute car and cut the suspension cord. The flight was extremely violent, owing to the brisk air currents, and Garnerin was battered to and fro by the wind. The sight was so frightening to spectators on the ground that they feared the worst for poor Garnerin, expecting that the parachute would collapse or that he would be flung out of the car.
As he swung out of sight, the crowd rushed toward the field near St. Pancras where Garnerin was seen to fall. There they found him bruised and dizzy from the motion of the car, but otherwise in good spirits. Two of the first well-wishers to arrive were the Duke of York and Lord Stanhope who heartily greeted the daring para-naut. A contemporary street ballad commemorates the event:
Bold Garnerin went up
Which increased his Repute
And came safe to earth
In his Grand Parachute.
While the Garnerins were touring Britain, the Napoleonic war erupted again and the family packed up their ballooning apparatus and left for the Continent to continue their grand aerial feats. From 1798 to 1812, Garnerin’s wife, Jeanne-Genevieve made numerous ascents in cities throughout Europe; several of these being accompanied by a parachute descent which thrilled the cheering crowds. She had been the first woman to descend in a parachute, performing that feat in 1798, at the age of 19. In 1799 she further added to her fame by becoming the first woman to “solo” in an aerostatic balloon.
During the early part of the 19th century, A. J. Garnerin was Napoleon’s official arranger of aeronautic fétes and Madame Garnerin’s unofficial title became “Aerostiere des Fétes Publiques”. By 1815, Garnerin’s niece, Mademoiselle Elisabeth Garnerin, had become an accomplished balloonist, and in that same year she performed her first parachute descent.
The Garnerins made a return trip to England towards the end of the Napoleonic war and a handbill describes their impending performance with Elisabeth descending in a parachute at The Theatre Royal, Covent-Garden, Wednesday January 4th, 1815, and Wednesday January 11th, 1815: ‘AN ASCENT OF A BALLOON AND PARACHUTE BY MONS. GARNERIN, CARRYING MLLE. GARNERIN, WHO WILL DESCEND IN THE PARACHUTE FROM THE ROOF, OVER THE AUDIENCE, ON TO THE STAGE.’
Elisabeth Garnerin went on to become the first “professional” parachutist, and performed a remarkable (for the times) 39 descents. During her trip to Italy in 1824, the people of Milan hailed her as “Prima Aeroporista” of France after performing her twenty-second and twenty-third descents there. An Italian engraving of the period shows her descending to earth waving an Italian flag in one hand and the French flag in the other.