One of the darker aspects of humanity’s otherwise gallant and dogged aspiration to fly was just how many early innovators met sticky ends. The first recorded aviation fatality is that of the great Islamic scholar Ismail ibn Hammad Al-jawhari who demonstrated the certainties of gravity and the frailty of man by fitting crude wings to his arms and jumping off a mosque in 1008 A.D. He died. Over the centuries that followed dozens of brave and sometimes foolhardy people met similar ends until, in 1903 the Wright Brothers managed to actually get up in the air and really get the ‘death by flight’ ball rolling. The fate of many early aviators is grimly repetitive. American Sam Cody, the first person to fly in Britain – died in a plane crash. Charles Royce (of Rolls Royce fame) died in a plane crash. John Alcock – the first man to fly across the Atlantic – died in a plane crash. Oskar Bider – the first man to fly across the Alps – died in a plane crash. Artur de Sacadura Cabral – the first man to fly across the South Atlantic – died in a plane crash. Raymonde de Laroche the first woman to get a pilot’s licence – died in a plane crash.
Exceptionally brave people and without them the development of heavier than air flight would have been grounded but it quickly became apparent that what was really needed was for someone to invent the parachute. Actually, parachutes already existed and had done so since the late 18th century but design limitations meant that they were only effective at high altitude. As most early aircraft could not get much above 500 feet the race was on to find a design that would deploy effectively at lower elevation and save lives – before the world ran out of pilots. And so, in November 1911, a mysterious benefactor by the name of Monsieur Lalance wrote to the Aero Club of France – offering a prize of 10,000 francs (about £45,000 today) to anyone who could invent a safety parachute weighing no more than 25kg that could practically be used by pilots of aircraft.
Enter stage left a tailor called M. Reichelt. ‘Franz’ Reichelt was an Austrian émigré who, having obtained French nationality in 1909, had changed his name to Francois, grown a magnificent Gallic moustache and in between making garments for wealthy customers, become fascinated with the possibilities of powered flight. The deaths of early aeronauts had inspired him to conduct his own experiments with parachute design and he had had some early success throwing dummies out of fifth storey windows – but he had been hampered somewhat by a lack of proper investment and a really good test site.
Francois was a man imbued with a surfeit of self-belief and confidence and he became fixated on the idea of winning the prize. He would become known as the man who invented ‘foldable silk wings.’ After all, it played to his strengths. He was a master of cloth. He liked planes – despite never having been in one. He knew all about stitching and texture and style. He didn’t know much about air resistance, or terminal velocity or even gravity – but these were trivial matters and the young tailor set to work on perfecting his design.
While Reichelt had every belief in his abilities, those experts who came into contact with him were less persuaded. The leading aeronautic organisation of the time, La Ligue Aérienne quickly dismissed his invention on the grounds that it wouldn’t work. The canopy was ‘too weak’ and the society endeavoured to convince him to try and do something more useful with his time – but Reichelt was having none of it. As the winter of 1911 progressed – he carried out multiple experiments, gaily chucking mannequins wearing his invention from the roof of his premises and then watching them plummet onto the cobbles below.
Most inventors might anticipate a ‘fail rate’ in the testing of new technology of course – but his was an impressive 100%. His ‘flying suit’ floated with all the grace of a freight train, tied to lead balloon. But it didn’t matter, because Francois Reichelt ‘believed’ in it and anyway he had set himself a deadline. In February 1912, just three months after Lalance had offered the prize – Reichelt declared that he was ready. Having gained the necessary permission, on the morning of Sunday 4th of February the flamboyant tailor arrived, wearing his suit and brimming with confidence in the Champs de Mars – at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
It was a bitterly cold day and film footage shows vapour exhaling in ever larger quantities off Reichelt’s breath. The tailor had promised the authorities and his friends that he would use a dummy for the test, but he had failed to mention that the dummy would be him. As his real intentions became clear, his increasingly desperate companions prevailed upon him and the police to put a stop to the madness but it fell on deaf ears. Reichelt believed it would work. Against all the evidence of experts and his own multiple tests – which demonstrated clearly that in every instance he would fail – the tailor believed his invention would lead him to glide gently to the ground. After a brief impasse, Francois ascended to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. There he posed for the cameras, before unfurling his Heath Robinsonesque wings. He climbed onto a table and then onto a chair that sat on the table – paused for a moment on the edge of the barrier – and jumped.
The hole Francois left in the ground has long since been filled in – but in a sense he did achieve the fame and celebrity he so clearly craved. Poor Franz Reichelt is remembered now as a magnificent failure, the first person whose death was caught on film. Watching the footage while knowing the outcome is almost unbearably poignant – and should I laugh at any mortal thing it is perhaps that I may not weep.
But what can we learn today from this act of suicidal futility?
Reichelt’s demise differs significantly from that of the pilots of his era in that their experiments and daring do were based on an evidence based approach to flight. His was based on the very opposite principle – from the very beginning it was clear his invention would not work. He was told as much by experts. He saw it for his own eyes. There was nothing at any point in the development of his flying suit to suggest that it would deploy properly. And yet – he prevailed – ultimately at the cost of his own life. Was he naïve? Was he foolhardy? Was he stupid? Yes – he was all of those things and more – and perhaps it’s time there was a word for it so I propose in his honour that we call it – a reichelt.
Reichelt (n): A person or entity hell bent on doing something suicidally stupid when all of the evidence demonstrates clearly that it will end catastrophically.
Example: “You moronic reichelt….. why the hell are you juggling cobras naked? Don’t you know what will happen?”
Adjective: reicheltic – “The British government took a reicheltic approach to the Brexit negotiations, eager as they were not to lose face in front of 17.4 million people who had voted for it to happen.”
Reicheltism is all about us today. As the world tumbles into further chaos and disarray and we are all forced to eat spam and cuddle together for warmth in nuclear bunkers, we might at least comfort ourselves that there is now a word to describe it.