May 17, 2013
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 film The Third Man. Welles added those lines himself to a script based on Graham Greene’s original story. And though he may have been a genius, Welles was wrong about the history of the Cuckoo clock. “When the film came out,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks!” Indeed, although often associated with Switzerland, the cuckoo clock was more likely invented in Germany sometime in the 17th century. I use the word “likely” because the origins of the cuckoo clock are unclear and its invention is still a topic of debate among horologists.
For a long time, the cuckoo clock was attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clockmaker of some repute from the Black Forest village of Schönwald. It was believed that Ketterer created the cuckoo in the 1730s, inspired by the bellows of church organs to adapt the technology in lieu of the chimes then typically used in clocks. This oft-cited theory first emerged in a relatively popular 1979 self-published book The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. For such an iconic timepiece, there is surprisingly little written about the cuckoo clock, but, as recently noted by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, modern scholarship does not support the Ketterer theory. While the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, evidence dates similar, though more primitive, objects to at least the mid 17th century – around 100 years before Ketterer’s supposed invention. In any case, the familiar cuckoo clock that we know and love today, the clock that hangs in our grandparents’ houses, was certainly developed and refined by the talented craftsman and clockmakers of the Black Forest.
In traditional cuckoo clocks, the “coo coo” sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo. The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock. One weight, along with the pendulum, is dedicated to keeping the clock gears running while the other weight controls the avian automoton. Clocks that play music in addition to chirping will have a third weight. After a century of development that saw wood replaced with brass and metal, two distinct styles of cuckoo clock emerged from the Black Forest to dominate the market: The ornamented, house-like “Bahnhäusleuhr” or “railroad house” and the Jagdstück” or “Hunt piece” or “traditional style” clock, which features elaborate, decorative hand carved nature scenes adorning a simple encasement.
So why a cuckoo? The common cuckoo, native to Europe, had long served as a natural marker of time, a welcome harbinger of Spring whose familiar calls denoted the coming of the new season and warmer weather. Writing eloquently on the cuckoo in his 1849 book Natural History: Birds, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described the joy felt upon hearing the first coos of the season:
There are few who do not feel a thrill of pleasure when it falls upon their ear. But more especially when, for the first time in the season, it is heard in a lovely Spring morning, mellowed by distance, borne softly from some thick tree, whose tender, and yellow-green leaves, but half-opened, are as yet barely sufficient to afford the welcome stranger the concealment he loves. At such a time it is peculiarly grateful; for it seems to assure us that indeed, winter is past.
Over the centuries since it first emerged from the Black Forest, the cuckoo clock has remained largely unchanged. Traditional clocks can still be bought and are a popular souvenir. But of course, there are now a much wider variety of styles to choose from, including striking modern clocks that look more like abstract sculptures than timepieces. However, my favorite contemporary cuckoos are those that pay homage to traditional hand-carved “hunt piece.” Although all details have been stripped away and the elaborate carvings flattened onto a single surface, these modern cuckoos are instantly recognizable solely by their familiar silhouette.
From “cuckoo” to “tweet tweet,” this next modern cuckoo clock is truly cutting edge. It was created by the London-based BERG design consultancy, who have a knack for integrating physical objects with digital network technology.
Designed especially for Twitter, #Flock is a series of four cuckoo clock objects that each literally “tweet” in response to a unique notification from the social media service. Berg’s method involves stripping an object down to its basic essence while maintaining a user-friendly, humanist design. Ornamentation was dropped in favor of a clean, minimalist design, an almost Bauhaus-like Bahnhäusleuhr. #Flock is a distillation of the cuckoo clock to three characteristics: craft, time, and alerts. #Flock is currently a limited edition exclusive to Twitter, but it alludes to a possible future where our digital lives are made manifest in the form of finely crafted objects and we interact with our invisible networks through real, physical things. But will it catch on? Will the cuckoo transform from the herald of Spring to the herald of retweets, emails, and likes? Only time (and tweets) will tell.
April 15, 2013
Last week we published a history of the Staunton chess set, which was developed, in part, out of a need to standardize pieces for international competition. In a response on his blog, Jason Kottke published some terrific images of beautiful pre-Staunton sets –the St. George, the Selenus, and the Regence– and explained some of the confusion that prompted the creation of the Staunton. While following up on some of these early chess sets, I learned that there is a trove of artist-designed chess sets in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. The largely minimalist chess pieces, created by artists including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Josef Hartwig, represent an attempt to strip down each piece to its most essential components: what is the absolute least a knight can be to still be read as a knight? The results are striking, although often just as confusing as the idiosyncratic pre-Staunton sets that proliferated throughout Europe during the 18th century.
Sculptor Josef Hartwig designed his chess set (above two images) while teaching at the Bauhaus in 1924. It embodied the school’s tenets that an object must be practical, durable, inexpensive and beautiful. Hartwig’s design reduced the pieces to the most basic components of artistic construction: line, square and circle. Though they are incredibly abstract, each well-crafted piece, originally sculpted from pear wood, has been designed to describe its movement on the board. The bishop, for example, is a simple X, denoting its diagonal movement. Every aspect of the Bauhaus set was given consideration, even the packaging designed by Hartwig’s colleague Joost Schmidt. It truly is, in the Bauhaus tradition, a union of art and craft. The pieces are stripped of any symbolic meaning and reduced to pure form. Their designations –bishop, knight, king– become irrelevant. All that matters was movement, which is made tangible as the identifying characteristic of each piece.
Even more reductive is this 1966 best designed by Lanier Graham. Perhaps most noteworthy on this set are the king and queen, whose tops are inverse versions of one another – a sort of phallic point on the king and, conversely, a yonic ‘v’ for the queen. Like Hartwig’s, Graham’s pieces fit perfectly, tanagram-like into its box.
Man Ray designed a set using mostly conic and curvilinear abstract forms. While his pieces are beautiful, they seem to be abstract for abstraction’s sake, rather than carry any built-in meaning. In fact, the pieces are a rather personal reflection of the artist himself, or rather, the artists space. Each piece was inspired by an object in his studio used for inspiration or still-life arrangement. The knight, for example, is the finial of a violin.
Man Ray played many chess matches against his friend and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp, for whom chess was, perhaps more than any artist past or present, a profound muse. More that that. Chess consumed Duchamp. In the 1920s, it was said that he abandoned art for the world of competitive chess. While he never truly stopped producing art, Duchamp did indeed compete in professional tournaments, even entering the several championships and earning the status of chess master. He not only drew and painted chess players, but encoded messages in his work that could only be read by chess players. Duchamp published a book on endgame theory the title of which sounded like one of his paintings or sculptures: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled. He designed chessmen and even created his own pocketbook chess sets, ensuring that he would never be without a board. In an obituary published in The New York Times, it was said that Duchamp’s life-long enthusiasm for the game inspired his fellow artists to create their own sets. For Duchamp, art and chess were one and the same. “From my close contact with artists and chess players,” he has famously said, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
These artistic chess are not strictly the purview of the middle of the century. Last year, London’s Saatchi Gallery commissioned sixteen artists, including Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, and Rachel Whiteread, to create their own vision of the game of kings. The results are incredibly diverse. Hirst’s set (above image) is made entirely from medicine bottles.
But even more cutting edge than high-art chess pieces are home-made ones. Relatively cheap 3D printing, combined with free design software, means that almost anyone can create their own chess sets. Last year, 3D printing pioneers Makerbot issued a chess set design challenge. Nearly one hundred diverse entries were posted online, including everything from variations of the traditional Staunton to a particularly innovative set of pieces that join together Voltron-like to form a chess robot.
With its nearly infinite combination of moves, its symbolic pieces, and its romantic terminology, it’s no wonder that chess has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. And there’s absolutely no doubt that the game will continue to challenge and inspire.
April 3, 2013
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
According to the most widely told origin story, the Staunton set was designed by architect Nathan Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.
And the knight, the most intricate and distinct piece of any chess set, is unique in that it’s the only piece that is not an abstracted representation of a designation; it’s a realistically carved horse head. The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Selene’s horse is part of a collection of sculptures controversially removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman court. Known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these sculptures were donated to the British Museum in 1816 and were enormously popular with a British public that was growing increasingly interested in classical antiquities. According to the British Museum, Selene’s horse “is perhaps the most famous and best loved of all the sculptures of the Parthenon. It captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky….the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.” Now you know why the knights in your chess sets always look like they’re screaming in agony.
Staunton appreciated the simplicity and legibility of Cook’s design, and allowed Cook to use of his name in marketing the new pieces, which were first offered to the public in 1849 by purveyors John Jaques of London. On the same day the new pieces hit shelves across London, an advertisement in the Illustrated London News celebrated the new set as “the Staunton Chessmen”:
“A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton….The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton’s pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.”
Now, there’s some confusion about the design of the first Staunton set because Nathaniel Cook also happened to be the brother-in law of John Jaques, as well as the editor of of the News– a paper that counted Staunton among its contributors. The three men were definitely in cahoots, and some speculate that Cook was not actually the designer but was merely an agent acting on behalf of Jaques, who was looking to increase his profits by creating a cheaper, more efficient design that appealed to a variety of players and had the blessing of the most famous chess player in London. Though the design is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Mr. Staunton, he provided only the initial endorsement and functioned as a sort of spokesman, passionately advocating the set in public. The design was a huge success. The simple, largely unadorned forms of the Staunton set made it relatively cheap and easy to produce, and instantly comprehensible. Since the 1920s, the Staunton set has been required by worldwide chess organizations.
From that original set advertised in the pages of the Illustrated London News, hundreds of different versions of the have emerged. While some variation is tolerated, there are several key distinguishing characteristics that define a set as a Staunton: the king is topped with a cross and, as the the tallest piece, serves as a metric for the height of the others; the queen is topped by a crown and ball; the bishop has a split top; the knight is a horse head; the rook is a squat castle turret.”
Recently, the Staunton set got a makeover. The new piece designs are part of an earlier project by noted design conultancy Pentagram, the rebranding of World Chess, an organization that aims to bring chess back to a level of popularity it enjoyed during the heyday of Bobby Fischer. Other than coming up with a new brand and identity for chess, Pentagram also designed a new tv-friendly competitive playing environment and an interactive website that lets fans follow games live online via “chesscasting”.
Daniel Weil, partner of Pentagram, reinterpreted the classic Staunton set for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London. Weil says that to begin the project he had to “unravel the rationale behind the original set.” This meant looking back to the pieces’ origins in Neoclassical architecture. Following the lead of Cook (or Jaques), Weil also looked to the Parthenon. As part of his subtle redesign, Weil resized the set so that when the eight primary pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon’s pediment. Weil also streamlined the pieces somewhat, returning a precision and thoughtfulness to the Staunton set that, in his view, had been lost in many of the Staunton variations created over the last 160 years. The design also reflects the relative value of each piece according to tournament rules; the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the grips that Weil ostentatiously refers to as the “north hold” and the more theatrical “south hold”. The high-quality set debuted in tournament play this year and is now also available to the public. Weill told Design Week, “When chess started to become popular in the 19th century it became a social showcase, so everyone had a set on show. I wanted to make an object of quality so that people could also show it off.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical architecture of Victorian London and a very modern need for standardization and mass production, the Staunton chessmen helped popularize the game and quickly became the world standard. The new Staunton pieces by Daniel Weil reinforces this architectural history of the original pieces while respecting their timeless design.
The House of Staunton; “Daniel Weil redesigns the chess set,” Design Week; “The History of the Staunton Chessmen” and “The Staunton Legacy,” Staunton Chess Sets; “The Staunton Chess Pattern,” ChessUSA; Henry A. Davidson, A Short History of Chess (Random House Digital, 2010); Pentagram
March 19, 2013
It’s nearly impossible to walk around a city or college campus or shopping mall, or really anywhere these days, without seeing at least a few dozen people wearing little earbuds stuffed into their ears, or even huge headphones that look like something a 747 pilot might wear. The ubiquity of modern headphones could perhaps be attributed to the Sony Walkman, which debuted in 1979 and almost immediately became a pop culture icon. As the first affordable, portable music player, the Walkman became such an prominent characteristic of the young urban professional that it was even featured on the cover of The Yuppie Handbook. But of course, the history of headphones dates back further than the 1980s. Like many commercial electronics, modern headphones (and stereo sound) originated, in part, in the military. However, there’s not a singular figure or company who “invented” the headphones, but a few key players who brought them from military bases and switchboards into the home and out to the street.
In the 1890s, a British company called Electrophone created a system allowing their customers to connect into live feeds of performances at theaters and opera houses across London. Subscribers to the service could listen to the performance through a pair of massive earphones that connected below the chin, held by a long rod . The form and craftsmanship of these early headphones make them a sort of remote, audio equivalent of opera glasses. It was revolutionary, and even offered a sort of primitive stereo sound. However, the earliest headphones had nothing to do with music, but were used for radio communication and telephone operators in the late 19th century.
Before the Electrophone, French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones in 1891, as engineer Mark Schubin noted in an excellent article on the history of headphones. Mercadier was awarded U.S. Patent No. 454,138 for “improvements in telephone-receivers…which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the head of the operator.” After extensive testing and optimization of telephone receivers, Mercadier was able to produce miniature receivers that weighed less than 1 3/4 ounces and were “adapted for insertion into the ear.” His design is an incredible feat of miniaturization and is remarkably similar to contemporary earbud headphones, down to the use of a rubber cover “to lessen the friction against the orifice of the ear…[and] effectually close the ear to external sounds.”
Do telephone headsets go back further than Mercadier’s 1891 patent? Sort of, but they’re almost unrecognizable shoulder harness-like objects that barely meet the definition by today’s standard. So let’s flash forward to the birth of the modern headphones.
In the years leading up to WWI, it wasn’t uncommon for the Navy to receive letters from small businesses and inventors offering up their unique products and skills. In 1910, a particularly memorable letter written in purple ink on blue and pink paper came from Utah native Nathaniel Baldwin, whose missive arrived with a pair of prototype telephone headsets offered for military testing. While the request wasn’t immediately taken seriously, the headphones were eventually tested and found to be a drastic improvement over the model then being used by Naval radio operators. More telephones were requested for testing and Baldwin obliged at his own expense.
The Navy offered Baldwin some suggestions for a a few tweaks, which he promptly incorporated into a new design that, while still clunky, was comfortable enough for everyday use. The Navy placed an order for Baldwin’s headphones, only to learn that Baldwin was building them in his kitchen and could only produce 10 at a time. But because they were better than anything else that had been tested, the Navy accepted Baldwin’s limited production capabilities. After producing a few dozen headphones, the head harness was further improved as its design was reduced to only two leather-covered, adjustable wire rods attached at each end to a receiver that supposedly contained a mile of copper wire. The new headset proved to be an immediate success and the Navy advised Baldwin to patent this new model of headphone. Baldwin, however, refused on the grounds that it was a trivial innovation. In order to increase production, the Navy wanted to move Baldwin out of his Utah kitchen and into much larger East Coast facility. But Nathaniel Baldwin was a polygamist and couldn’t leave Utah. Another manufacturer, the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co., got wind of the situation and worked with the inventor to build a factory in Utah and manufacture the headphones. The agreement with Wireless Specialty came with one enormous caveat: the company could never raise the price of headsets sold to the U.S. Navy.
The next big innovation in headphone design came after the second World War, with the onset of stereophonics and the popular commercialization of the technology. Record label EMI pioneered stereo recordings in 1957 and the first commercial stereo headphones were created a year later by musician and entrepreneur John Koss, founder of the Koss Corporation. Koss heard about a “binaural audio tape” from a friend and was thrilled to hear how it sounded through a pair of military grade headphones. Determined to bring this sound to the public, Koss developed an entire “private listening system,” the Koss Model 390 phonograph, for enjoying music that included a phonograph, speaker and headphone jacks all in one small package. The only problem was that there were no commercially available headphones that were compatible with his new phonograph. They were all made for communication or warplanes. Koss talked with an audio engineer about this and they quickly rigged up a pair of makeshift prototype headphones. “It was a great sound,” Koss remembers. The design was refined built from two vacuum-formed brown plastic cups containing three-inch speakers protected by a perforated, light plastic cover and foam ear pads. These were connected by a bent metal rod and the Koss SP-3 headphones were born. “Now the whole thing was there,” remembers Koss. Music lovers embraced the stereophonic headphones due to their enhanced sound quality, which was made possible by the use of different signals in each ear that could closely approximate the sounds of a concert hall. The design was well received when it debuted at a hi-fi trade show in Milwaukee in 1958 and was almost immediately copied by other manufacturers, standardizing the design of headphones around the world for years to come.
An interesting footnote to this story is the suggestion from media theorist Friedrich Kittler that, while Koss may have created the first truly stereo headphones, the first people to actually experience stereophonic sound through headphones were the members of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
In his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler describes the innovative radar system used by the German Airforce during World War II, which allowed headphone-wearing pilots to reach the destinations and bombers to accurately drop payload without visually seeing their targets:
“Radio beams emitted from the coast facing Britain…formed the sides of an ethereal trailing the apex of which was located precisely above the targeted city. The right transmitter beamed a continuous series of Morse dashes into the pilot’s right headphone, while the left transmitter beamed an equally continuous seres of Morse dots–always exactly in between the dashes–into the left headphone. As a result, any deviation from the assigned course results in the most beautiful ping-pong stereophony.”
When the pilots reached their target, the two radio signals merged into one continuous note. As Kittler writers, “Historically, [the German pilot] had become the first consumer of a headphone stereophony that today controls us all.”
The above mentioned designs are only a few of the more prominent developments in the history of personal audio. It’s likely that there are even earlier inventions and it’s certain that there are many, many other individuals who should be thanked for their contributions to the development of the modern headphones that let us shut out the roar of plane engines with music, listen to play-by-play analysis while watching a baseball game in person, and strut down the street to our own personal soundtracks.
Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN, “The Early Radio Industry and the United States Navy,” History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy (1963): 133-152; Peter John Povey and Reg A. J. Earl, Vintage Telephones of the World (London: Peter Peregrinus Ltd., 1988); Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); Virginia Hefferman, “Against Headphones,” The New York Times (January 7, 2011); Mark Schubin “Headphones, History, & Hysteria” (2011), http://www.schubincafe.com/2011/02/11/headphones-history-hysteria/; “Koss History,” http://www.koss.com/en/about/history; Google patents
March 7, 2013
I recently went skydiving for the first time. It was possibly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. A couple days later, once I had time to process everything, my thoughts turned to that backpack that kept me alive. When was it designed? Who was the inventor that made it possible for me to survive a fall of 10,000 feet? Some quick research told that that I owed my life to a Russian actor named Gleb Kotelnikov, who is credited with inventing the first backpack parachute in 1911. Surprisingly little is written about Kotelnikov –at least in English– but assuming Google translate can be trusted, he was compelled to create the parachute after witnessing the death of pilot Leo Matsievich during an air show in St. Petersburg. From that horrible moment, Kotelnikov, a former theater actor, dedicated the rest of his life to preventing the unnecessary deaths of airplane pilots. By the early 20th century, basic parachutes were already widely used to perform jumps from hot-air balloons, and of course the idea of the parachute famously goes back all the way to Leonardo da Vinci, but these early parachutes were elaborate and cumbersome, and the high speed at which planes traveled required a more efficient design.
Kotenikov wasn’t alone in his realization that planes required a new type of parachute, but many early designs were actually attached to the plane itself and could get tangled with the crashing vehicle or separated from the pilot. Kotelnikov’s innovation came with the realization that for a parachute to save lives, it had to meet two primary qualifications: it had to always be with the pilot –ideally, it would be attached to him in some way– and it had to open automatically – presumably to protect the pilot if he lost consciousness. He developed several prototypes that met these qualifications, including a parachute helmet, a parachute belt, and a parachute attached to several points of the body via an elaborate harness. Eventually he came up a working model for a stable parachute in a hard knapsack that would be attached to the pilot by a harness. He dubbed the invention the RK-1 (Russian Kotelnikov 1). The RK-1 was attached to the plane by static line that would pull the chute open once the pilot reached the proper distance from the aircraft, but it could also be opened manually by pulling a cord. The race for the parachute patent was competitive and Kotelnikov conducted several tests in secret, including one particularly noteworthy experiment at a race track. He attached his RK-1 to a racing car, drove it up to full speed, and pulled the cord. The pack opened successfully, the resistance stalled the engine, and the car was dragged to a full stop. So not only can Gleb Kotelnikov be credited as the designer the backpack parachute, but also, incidentally, as the inventor of the drag chute (although in 1911 nothing really moved fast enough to actually require a drag chute). Kotelnikov took his field-tested design to the Central Engineering Department of the War Ministry, which promptly –and repeatedly– refused to put his design into production. Kotelnikov’s design had proven that it could save lives, but the Russian military were concerned that if their pilots were given the means to safely evacuate their planes, they would do so at the slightest sign of any danger, and unnecessarily sacrifice the expensive vehicle instead of trying to pilot it to safety.
The story gets a little hazy from there. From what I can discern with the help of automatic translators, an aviation company helped Kotelnikov market his invention in Europe. The RK-1 was met with wide acclaim but the company backed out of their deal with Kotelnikov – conveniently around the same time that one of the two prototype parachutes was stolen from the Russian inventor. In the years leading up to World War I he returned to Russia and found that the government was more receptive to his invention, but by then parachutes inspired by –and sometimes copied from– his original design were appearing throughout Europe.
After World War I proved the importance of aviation and the value of the parachute, the U.S. Army assembled a team to perfect the design of this new life-saving device. The key members of this task force were test pilot James Floyd Smith and film stuntman Leslie Irvin, who patented his own static-line parachute in 1918 and would go on to start the Irvin Airchute Company the following year. Smith also had a couple patents under his belt, including “The Smith Aerial Life Pack,” which The Parachute Manual calls the first “modern free type” (re: manually operated) parachute. Whether or not these American designs were at all inspired by Kotelnikov’s, or one of the many other experimental parachutes that were in use during the war, is hard to say. But Smith’s innovation seems to be simplicity: his Life Pack consisted of a single piece of waterproof fabric wrapped over a silk parachute and held together by rubber bands that would be released when the jumper pulled a ripcord. It has the distinction of being the first patented soft-pack parachute (Kotelnikov’s soft-pack design, the RK-2, didn’t go into production until the 1920s.).
The military team led by Smith and Irvin eventually came up with the Airplane Parachute Type-A. Modeled closely after the Smith Life Pack, the primary components of the Type-A were a 28-foot diameter silk canopy, a soft backpack and harness, a ripcord, and a two-foot diameter pilot chute (a small parachute used to help deploy the main chute). Naturally, Irvin was the first man to test this new design and upon doing so on April 28, 1919, he became the first American to jump from an airplane and open a manually open a parachute in midair. The Type-A was approve and produced for the military by Irvin’s recently formed company.
The team led by Smith and Irvin was in charge of parachute design through the next World War and into the 1950s. Irvin’s company dominated the market. Not only did they produce the parachutes for the U.S. military, but they eventually also pioneered the development of the civilian and recreational parachute industry. After the Type-A, designs evolved quickly and are too numerous to mention in this post. Although its history is inextricably tied to the history of aviation, it took a complete outsider, an actor moved by tragedy, to create the first successful parachute nearly a century ago. Countless innovations, both large and small, have since refined the design of the parachute so much that it is now safe enough for even a shaky-kneed amateur to defy gravity at 10,000 feet.
Dan Poynter, The Parachute Manual: A Technical Treatise on Aerodynamic Decelerators (Santa Barbara, CA: Para Publishing, 1991); “Parachute Russian, Kotelnikov,” http://www.yazib.org/yb030604.html; “Leslie Irvin, Parchutist,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Irvin_(parachutist); “James Flloyd Smith,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Floyd_Smith; Google Patents, http://google.com/patents