History & Mythology

Puzzle Inspired Story

Reinventing the Umbrella

According to an Indian legend, a skilled bow shooter named Jamadagni had his devoted wife Renuka recover the shot arrows for him. His wife usually returned them immediately, but one day it took her until the evening to bring the arrows back. Ranuka blamed the delay on the scorching sun. Angry, Jamadagni shot an arrow at the sun. The sun implored the shooter to spare it, and gave Ranuka an umbrella.

As this legend suggests, in antiquity the umbrella was primarily used for protection against the sun (and called a parasol when used for that purpose). In ancient Greece and Rome, it was an article of women’s apparel and it was considered effeminate for men to carry one. In fact, ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes had Prometheus carry one as a comical feminine disguise in one of his plays.

Surprisingly, the umbrella was not in use in Europe until the 17th century. Since heat does not pose a problem in much of the continent, umbrellas found their primary application there as a screen against the rain. They became commonplace only in the second half of the 18th century after people overcame their shyness over carrying them in public.

Every New Yorker will confirm that even a good quality umbrella, while adequate in calm weather, is quite ineffective in the frequent gusty storms in the Big Apple. Walking on Manhattan’s streets after a rain one will see many umbrellas scattered on the sidewalks, their spokes mangled by the wind. Gerwin Hoogendoorn, a Dutch industrial engineering student from Delft University of Technology, answered this problem in 2005 with an aerodynamic umbrella certified to withstand winds up to 70mp/h (100km/h). Hoogendoorn’s umbrella will not turn inside-out and will automatically orient itself to deflect the wind.

The other commonly contemplated use of umbrellas, as parachutes, was debunked in the 18th episode of the MythBusters show (2004). The show’s team established that while falling speed was decreased by a lawn umbrella, the impact was still deadly. In 2008, however, an incredibly skilled skydiver and stuntman, Luigi Cani, safely landed a parachute of only 37 square feet. Approximately 4 by 9 feet in size, the parachute was slightly smaller (in terms of its surface area) than a common 7-foot patio umbrella.



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