On this day in history : 24th July 1837 – Robert Cocking, a professional watercolour artist with a keen interest in science, is the first person to be killed during a parachute jump….

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Robert Cocking – Lithograph by Louisa Corbaux after J B Beeh – Public domain

In 1802 Cocking had seen Andre-Jacques Garnerin perform the first parachute jump on British soil – (the first modern parachute jump in the world was by Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1785)…. Inspired by what he had seen Cocking wanted to improve on the umbrella-shaped design of Garnerin’s parachute…. Cocking’s ‘improved’ design was based on an inverted cone-shape – and he spent several years developing it….

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Cocking’s ill-fated parachute design – Public domain

The idea was to launch his parachute from a hot air balloon and gently descend to the ground…. The venue was set at Vauxhall Gardens, London; a large crowd gathered to watch the event – and at 5pm Cocking began his ascent…. Only things were not to go according to plan….

The balloon shot rapidly upwards and the parachute was released….for a few moments it appeared to recover and hold steady – but suddenly it went into free-fall, turning inside-out and then breaking up…. Cocking plunged 5,000 feet to his death….

Cocking would have been killed instantly; his body was found in a field near to Lee, to the south east of London…. The cause of the accident was a combination of the parachute’s weight and its flimsy construction…. It was particularly weak in regards to the stitching that connected the fabric to the framework….

Following Cocking’s death parachuting became unpopular, being confined mainly to carnival and circus acts…. However, in the late 19th century safety developments, such as the advent of safety harnesses, made it viable once again….img_3614

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