When he jumped from the 15th floor of a Washington, D.C., building, Štefan Banič was not dressed as Batman — in fact, he predated the superhero by a quarter of a century. But Banič’s stiff-winged get-up still excited the crowd gathered outside the building — which some have speculated was the Cairo, near Dupont Circle. Banič survived the fall thanks to his parachute costume, which was his own design.
A Slovak immigrant who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1907, when he was almost 40 years old, Banič has gone down in history as one of the inventors of the parachute. His invention, allegedly constructed after he witnessed a 1912 plane crash, doesn’t remotely resemble the parachute as we know it today. But two months after his crowd-pleasing 1914 jump, Banič was granted a patent — and some credit him with saving hundreds of soldiers’ lives during World War I.
There’s no doubt that Banič constructed something parachute-like, and that he obtained a patent for it (No. 1,108,484). Everything else, though, from his biography to the significance of his invention, is surrounded by controversy and confusion.
The story of the iconic June 3 jump, for instance, and others that allegedly followed, has been told for half a century and is part of nearly every biographical note about Banič. However, nobody is sure which building he jumped from, and some argue that the skyscraper was 41 stories rather than 15 … even though there are no 41-story skyscrapers in Washington due to the city’s height restrictions. The Cairo, the city’s tallest residential building, is only 12 stories.
“The problem,” says Miroslav Tibor Morovics, a historian at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, “is that there’s no firsthand source.” The jump is mentioned in Tichý Ikaros (Quiet Icarus), a 1968 fictionalized biography of Banič aimed at young people. The book’s authors dated the jump to August, not June, saying that it made Banič “immediately famous” and that his name “spilled across the entire continent as a light.”
The Record-Argus waxed rhapsodic about the parachute, predicting that it would “revolutionize” modern aviation.
According to Marián Mark Stolárik, a Slovak-Canadian professor of history at the University of Ottawa, Banič is “overrated.” Stolárik doesn’t rule out the jump’s existence, but notes that “at that time, in America, it was relatively easy to make something up and receive a patent for money, as the decision was often made by clerks, not qualified engineers.”
What is certain is that no American newspaper noted the jump, although they reported regularly on the attempts, usually tragic, of other parachuting experiments. That same 1914 summer, journalists documented attempted jumps by J.O. Gill, Frank Tidegan and Lucienne Cayat de Castella, who all died when their parachutes failed to open. Why wouldn’t they celebrate one who succeeded?
The first, and one of very few, mentions of Banič (as “Stephen Banic”) in the U.S. press was in October 1914. The Greenville, Pennsylvania–based Record-Argus called him “a genius” who was working on “an automobile sled.” The paper also waxed rhapsodic about the parachute, predicting that it would “revolutionize” modern aviation if airship factories would accept the design.
But none did. Banič donated his patent rights to the U.S. Army, receiving neither fortune nor much recognition in return. In the early 1920s, he returned to his hometown of Smolenice, in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, to work as a bricklayer. Despite what some reports say, Banič’s parachute may never have been used on the battlefield. “I can tell with 90 percent certainty that [Banič’s] design was never used by the U.S. military,” says Randy Zuercher, a former skydiver and the curator of the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
This isn’t to downplay Banič’s invention, but to put it in proper perspective. “He helped parachuting to advance, and I believe his original concept was later adopted into BASE jumping,” Morovics says, while cautioning that calling Banič the inventor of the parachute is inaccurate.
Don’t say that too loudly in Smolenice, where Banič died in 1941. “He’s of great significance for our town,” says Anton Chrvala, the mayor of Smolenice. “Just this summer, the museum where one can see the copy of the patent was visited by some 500 tourists.” Banič’s granddaughter, Lubomira Hečkova, still lives in Smolenice.
“I don’t remember him,” says Hečkova, 79. “But I do remember that his son — my father — hid the patent in a cupboard in our house.” The patent was at the center of a schism in Hečkova’s family after a cousin sold it to the museum without consulting other family members. “Four years ago, when we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the patent, authorities invited only my sister to the official ceremony,” she says. “I haven’t spoken with her since.”
Though patent No. 1,108,484 may have brought more frustration than joy for Banič’s descendants, he still enjoyed more success than the majority of the 620,000 Slovaks living the U.S. in 1921, many of whom were impoverished and illiterate. In 1990, the Slovak Museum and Archives honored Banič with a bronze plaque in his former home of Greenville, Pennsylvania.
Younger generations, however, don’t know about Banič, says Michael Kopanic, a Slovak-American historian at the University of Maryland University College. “[He] doesn’t get the attention he deserves,” Kopanic says, “but many inventors don’t. Not everyone can be da Vinci, Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs.”
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