Have you ever depended on a parachute to bring you safely from the sky back down to earth? Many successful landings can be credited to 2022 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Floyd Smith, inventor of the modern parachute.
A Life of Death-Defying Experiences
Born in 1884 in Geneseo, Illinois, the story of Smith’s life sounds a bit like a script for an action movie. At just 10 years old, he was a cowboy earning his own living on a ranch. He later worked as a machinist, an orange grower, a sugar factory worker and a trapeze artist in the circus.
As a member of the Flying Sylvesters, Smith toured the country for several years, performing in circus and vaudeville acts. In 1907, he married Hilder F. Youngberg, his fearless partner in daring aerial acts. The couple’s shared interest in airplanes led them to build their own tractor biplane in 1912, and after Smith taught himself to fly over the course of just six days, the pair flew from Santa Ana to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Smith made this flight in one hour and seven minutes, which set a speed record.
Following his record-setting flight, Smith spent some time barnstorming, or performing stunt pilot tricks. He then found work as a mechanic at the Glenn L. Martin Co. factory in Los Angeles, and it was here that Smith made his first parachute jump.
Smith’s first jump was made with a static-line chute, which attached to the plane. Though he managed to land safely, he realized how easily he could have become entangled in the parachute cord following his jump. Not long after this first jump, Smith’s wife had a harrowing experience with a parachute jump of her own. At this point, Smith became convinced that a manually operated parachute worn by the jumper rather than attached to the plane would be an ideal solution.
A Reliably Safe Design
Smith designed a parachute that would be worn on the body and could be released by a mechanism that was attached to the pack itself. This model would allow jumpers to deploy the parachute’s canopy manually, using a ripcord.
Around the time Smith filed a patent to protect his parachute design, in July 1918, he was hired by the U.S. Army to inspect and test planes at South Field in Dayton, Ohio. This was during World War I, at a time when a rise in the number of military pilot fatalities meant the Army was in need of a reliable parachute for emergency escapes.
Floyd Smith’s parachute would prove to be just what the Army needed. His design offered exceptional adaptability in escaping from dangerous situations in planes, such as spins, dives or inverted positions. A parachute design called the “Type A,” closely based on Smith’s original version, became the Army’s standard parachute.
When Smith left government service in 1919, he licensed his patents to a number of parachute manufacturers and founded his own companies, including the Floyd Smith Aerial Equipment Co. and the Pioneer Parachute Co.
To learn more about the other inventors Inducted in Floyd Smith’s class, view our Inductee search page.