Floyd Smith

For more than five centuries, numerous inventors, including Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, attempted to design reliable parachutes. However, it was only in 1920 that the modern parachute, as we know it today, was patented. James Floyd Smith was born on 17 October 1884 in Illinois. He travelled and worked in various states, finding employment as a cowboy, sugar factory worker, machinist, and later as a circus trapeze artist. While touring with the circus, he married fellow artist Hilder Youngberg in 1907. A few years later, with the help of his wife, Smith built a biplane. The couple displayed and flew the aircraft at various shows. Meanwhile, Smith worked for the Glenn L. Martin Company as an engineer and test pilot. In 1916 he won the Aero Club of America Medal of Merit for altitude records in a seaplane. He was later employed by the US Army to inspect imported De Havilland aircraft. During that time, Smith began work on designing a new kind of parachute. At the time, there were several other parachute types in production or development, but Smith’s design was different in that it relied on a ripcord to manually deploy the canopy, rather than a static line. Also, his parachute would be worn on the body of its user. According to the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, “his parachute was among many tested in 1919 and was the one that best met the Army’s requirements. Soon, the ‘Type A’ design, which was closely based on Smith’s original version, became the standard parachute for the Army. Smith’s design was noted for its adaptability in escaping from planes in spins, dives or inverted positions.”

Leslie Irvin, a stunt pilot who helped Smith develop his parachute, completed the first premeditated free-fall parachute jump during that year. Irvin later started his own successful parachute manufacturing company.

Following the success of his design, Smith left the military and worked with various parachute manufacturers to continue developing and improving parachute designs and components. Over the course of his life, he was awarded 33 patents. Smith died of cancer on 18 April 1956 at the age of 69. Over the past 100 years, countless airmen would have died, were it not for his life-saving innovations.