Louis-Sébastien Lenormand

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Lenormand jumps from the tower of the Montpellier observatory, 1783. Illustration from the late 19th Century.

Louis-Sébastien Lenormand (May 25, 1757 – December 1837) was a French chemist, physicist, inventor and pioneer in parachuting. He is considered as the first man to make a witnessed descent with a parachute and is also credited with coining the term parachute, from the Greek prefix para meaning "against", and the French word chute for "fall", hence the word "parachute" literally means an aeronautic device "against a fall". After making a jump from a tree with the help of a pair of modified umbrellas, Lenormand refined his contraption and on December 26, 17831 jumped from the tower of the Montpellier observatory in front of a crowd that included Joseph Montgolfier, using a 14-foot parachute with a rigid wooden frame. His intended use for the parachute was to help entrapped occupants of a burning building to escape unharmed. Lenormand was succeeded by André-Jacques Garnerin who made the first parachute descent from high altitude in a gondola detached from a balloon, with the help of a non-rigid or collapsible parachute on October 22, 1797, and his wife Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse who made a similar descent two years later.

Early life[edit]

Lenormand was born in Montpellier on May 25, 1757 as the son of a clockmaker. Between 1775 and 1780, he studied physics and chemistry under Lavoisier and Berthollet in Paris, where he also got involved with the administration of saltpeter. In this position he learned of the use of scientific and mathematical knowledge in the production of gunpowder. After returning to his natal town, he worked in his father's clock shop while immersing himself in the intellectual community and starting his experiments with parachuting, inspired by the performance of a Thai equilibrist who used a parasol for balance. Before performing the public jump from the observatory tower, Lenormand tested his parachutes using animals.

Career as "professor of technology"[edit]

After this public demonstration Lenormand devoted himself to establishing the science of "pure technology". To this end, he first became a Carthusian monk, as the monastery in Saïx near Castres allowed him to continue his "profane" studies. When during the French Revolution he had to renounce his priesthood and marry, he moved to Albi to teach technology at a college newly founded by his father-in-law. In 1803 he moved to Paris where he obtained a job at the excise office, part of the finance ministry. During his time at the excise office, Lenormand started publishing in technology journals and filed patents for a paddle boat, a clock successfully installed at the Paris Opera and a public lighting system. When he was removed from his job in 1815, Lenormand got involved even more in publishing, first establishing the Annales de l’industrie nationale et étrangère (Annals of National and Foreign Industry) and the Mercure technologique (Technologic Mercury), and, starting in 1822 and continuing until his death in 1837, twenty-volumes of Dictionnaire technologique (Technologic Dictionary). During that time, he also published manuals on such diverse topics as foodstuff and bookbinding.

In 1830, Lenormand returned to Castres and, following his estrangement from his wife and her family, renounced his marriage and resumed his religious life as "Brother Chrysostom". He died there in December 1837 at age 80. In his death certificate, his profession was given as "professor of theology" as the term "technology" was still too new at the time.

Notes[edit]

  • ^1 The date differs by source. December 26, 1783 is the most widely reported date.

References[edit]

  • Louis Guilbert: La formation du vocabulaire de l'aviation Larousse (1965). Google books
  • Joost Mertens: "Technology as the science of the industrial arts: Louis-Sébastien Lenormand (1757-1837) and the popularization of technology", History and Technology 18(3), 203–231 (2002). Taylor & Francis
  • Lynn White, Jr.: "The Invention of the Parachute", Technology and Culture 9(3), 462-467 (1968). JSTOR