(borrowed from Parachuting: The Skydiver's Handbook, by Dan Poynter and Mike Turoff)
People have been using parachutes for hundreds of years, even back to China in the 1100s. Around 1495, Leonardo DaVinci designed a pyramid-shaped, wooden framed parachute that Adrian Nichols jumped in the late 20th century. It descended slowly enough to land, but Nichols worried the heavy contraption might crush him to death. So at a safe altitude, he released from it and landed under his reserve.
The modern history of the sport began in the late 18th century with Jacques Garnerin from France who performed display jumps from balloons flying over Europe. Later in the 19th century, women, who still number only between 15 and 20 percent among skydivers, began to appear on the scene. Kathe Paulus from Germany jumped professionally in Germany around the turn of the 20th century. Tiny Broadwick, another professional parachutist in the U.S., became the first woman to jump from an airplane in 1913 and the first to make a freefall in 1914.
During World War I, parachutes were introduced as rescue devices for observation balloon pilots, but airplane pilots were instructed to land with their aircraft. The first emergency bailout from an airplane didn't occur until 1922. In 1925, early experiments with stable, extended freefall began.
In the years between the World Wars of the 20th century, barnstormers, typically adventurous orphans and runaways, performed parachute jumps at airshows. In WWII, the first troop insertions with parachutes are credited with turning the tide of the war against the Axis powers.
After World War II, an abundance of surplus parachutes and former soldiers with the courage to jump them for sport resulted in the growth of parachuting as a hobby. Competitions began to develop and gain acceptance among the international air sports. People first heard the term "skydiver," coined by Raymond Young in the mid-1950s, as the first commercial skydiving centers opened. By 1957, the first commercial skydiving schools began to appear, and the National Parachute Riggers-Jumpers, Inc., started in the 1930s, became the Parachute Club of America. PCA renamed itself the United States Parachute Association in 1967.