"God denied to men the faculty of flight so that they might lead a quiet and tranquil life, for if they knew how to fly they would always be in perpetual danger."
-- Juan Caramuel y Lobkovitz (1606-1682)
Human history is filled with marvelous achievements. The invention of the automobile changed the landscapes of cities and the surrounding suburbs around the world; the Internet connected people on a scale unimaginable before computers; and, of course, the arrival of the airplane only 100 years ago gave us the ability to cross oceans and connect the far corners of the Earth.
Before each of these innovations settled in and were taken for granted, however, their inventors struggled to get them off the ground. Early railway systems and gas-powered vehicles were bumpy, uncomfortable and inefficient. For centuries the abacus was the only tool available for making calculations. Attempts at flight, meanwhile, were the most dangerous, since the point was maintaining control of a body or machine in the middle of the air, high above the ground.
The history of flight, in particular, is peppered with mishaps, failures and fatalities. In their efforts to understand the mechanics of flight, would-be inventors mostly tried to mimic the anatomy of birds.
Some of the attempts are mythical and legendary; others are true stories with real documentation. Some were simple designs destined for loud thuds; others were complicated contraptions meant for equally chaotic crashes. On the next page, we'll begin our look at some of the well-meaning failures in man's attempt to reach for the stars.
The Legend of King Bladud (c. 850 B.C.)
Before Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first heavier-than-air airplane at Kitty Hawk, N. C., in 1903, humans had been attempting flight for thousands of years. Ovid published his collection of myths, "Metamorphoses," at the very beginning of the first millennium, which included the tale of Daedalus and Icarus escaping the island of Crete by way of glue and feathers. Actors at Roman feasts frequently entertained simply by jumping from tall heights with nothing but feathered arms, falling to their deaths.
The very first recorded attempt at human flight, however, goes as far back as 850 B.C. to Troja Nova, or New Troy, where the legendary King Bladud made his mark on aviation history. Although there's little evidence supporting his existence, Bladud is still an important mythical figure who may have had an actual historical counterpart. According to the tales, Bladud was a great user of magic. He allegedly discovered the cure for leprosy in the city of Bath, of which many considered him the founder.
King Bladud also practiced necromancy, or communication with the spirits of the dead. Legend says he used necromancy to build a pair of wings that attached to his arms. Bladud made an attempt to fly at the temple of Apollo while wearing the wings, but the mythical figure unfortunately didn't get the right blueprints from the spirits: He fell to his death.
After his fall, he was apparently buried in Troja Nova and succeeded by his son, Lear, the very same king on whom Shakespeare based his tragic play, "King Lear." Could the sensational death of his father be the real reason King Lear went mad during his old age, raging against the wind in the forest?
To learn about a more advanced machine designed by an actual historical figure, go to the next page.
Leonardo da Vinci's Complex Ornithopter (c. 1505)
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is well known around the world as an artist. Millions of people every year flock to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, to get a glimpse of his painting the "Mona Lisa." His sketch of "The Vitruvian Man" changed the way people use proportion in art. His depiction of Christ and his disciples, "The Last Supper," even influenced the plot for the immensely popular best-selling book by Dan Brown, "The Da Vinci Code."
But Leonardo isn't called the ultimate Renaissance man without reason. He didn't just paint -- he was also a sculptor, an anatomy expert and an engineer, and he managed to predict the steam engine, the tank and the submarine.
During his 30s, Leonardo also took a great interest in flight, and by about 1505 had collected around 20 years of theory on flight. It is around this time that some think Leonardo built a complex ornithopter, a machine with flapping wings that closely mimicked the anatomy of birds.
No one really knows if Leonardo actually built a model of and tested his ornithopter. Many of his designs remained on paper during his lifetime and weren't built until much later; a working model of his primitive version of the car, for instance, wasn't actually constructed until 2004 because of a misunderstanding of the sketches. In 1550, however, one of Leonardo's associates, Cardanus, wrote that he had tried "in vain" to get the ornithopter off of the ground, so there's a possibility that the Renaissance man took his machine for a few disastrous spins.
Some of Leonardo's contemporaries couldn't quite figure out how to get off the ground, either. To learn about two of them, read the next page.
Giovanni Battista Danti and Paolo Guidotti
Leonardo da Vinci wasn't the only Renaissance man around to try his hand at flying. One of Leonardo's contemporaries, the Italian mathematician Giovanni Battista Danti, was one of the many men throughout the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance to mistakenly interpret the anatomy of birds and take the motion of flapping wings a little too far. Like many other before and after him, Giovanni simply glued feathers to his arms and moved them rapidly up and down, hoping the feathers had some physical property that aided the mechanics of flight. Unfortunately, trial flights by Lake Trasimeno only ended up in violent crashes on the roof of Saint Mary's Church.
Another Renaissance man, Paolo Guidotti, who lived about 100 years later than Leonardo and Giovanni, just couldn't let go of the bird's-wing theory. Constructing wings made of whalebone (once again, covered with feathers) and curved into shape using springs, Guidotti attempted a flight that lasted about 400 yards (366 meters) before falling through a roof and breaking his thigh. Like most others from his age, he concluded that painting was a safer, much more enjoyable art than aviation.
Leonardo, Giovanni and Paolo were all in their 50s when they attempted to fly, but the person who took the next leap of faith was much younger. Read on to learn about the painful truth.
John Williams, Archbishop of York (c. 1589)
Children often express their desire to fly from an early age. We often have fantastic dreams of floating or flying around effortlessly when we're young, and it's no surprise adolescents are drawn to superheroes like Superman, who can run, jump and fly faster than a speeding bullet.
If we're lucky enough, however, our parents let us know that actually attempting to fly without an airplane or helicopter and a licensed professional behind the wheel is not a good idea. Unfortunately for one boy, seven-year-old John Williams from Conway, Wales, no one passed on this valuable information concerning the human body's inability to fly. One day while wandering the walls of Conway, young Williams was compelled to throw himself out toward the sea, hoping the wind would carry him away. The coat he was wearing at the time was long, and he assumed it could billow out and act like a sail or wings. The boy, according to John Hacket in 1693, "suffer'd an adventitious Mischance" and fell immediately onto a rock below. The stone "caused a secret Infirmity, fitter to be understood, then further describ'd" -- in other words, the fall Williams suffered castrated him. Williams's infirmity didn't slow him down, though, as he became Archbishop of York and lived to the age of 78.
While Williams got the idea early on that men weren't built to fly without proper propulsion, one man just couldn't give it up. To learn about the bungled attempts of Pierre Desforges, read the next page.
Pierre Desforges (1770-1772)
Although the Abbé Pierre Desforges, a French clergyman born around the year 1723, surrounded himself with a bit of controversy during his lifetime -- in 1758, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for almost a year because of a treatise he wrote stating that Catholic priests and bishops should be allowed to marry -- authorities mostly saw him as a harmless yet stubborn eccentric. During his time in prison, Desforges found the time to study the mating habits of swallows, and it was this endeavor that most likely led to his future obsession with the mechanics of flight.
In 1770, the Abbé constructed a pair of wings, but Desforges wasn't confident enough to try them out himself. Instead, he attached the wings to the nearest peasant and covered him from head to toe in feathers. Leading him up to the top of a belfry, Desforges proceeded to instruct the peasant to start flapping and throw himself into the air, assuring him the wings would work. Desforges gave up after the peasant outright refused to commit suicide, and set to work on gathering funds to build a more reliable flying contraption.
After two years of hard work, Desforges eventually unveiled his flying machine, a six-foot (1.8-meter) long gondola covered by a canopy and attached with wings, the latter of which had a wingspan of nearly 20 feet (6.1 meters). The Abbé sought the help of four more peasants to carry the flying gondola up to the top of the Tour Guinette, a lookout tower near his church. This time Desforges was the one flying, as he most likely assumed that word had spread among the peasants to look out for any clergyman seeking aid near heights. In front of a large crowd, the peasants pushed Desforges over the edge, whereupon he promptly fell straight to the ground. The churchman suffered no more than a broken arm, but onlooker Baron von Grimm noted that although Desforges wouldn't be burned as a sorcerer, "the idea of the gondola would be likely to lead him straight to the madhouse."
Read the next page for a slightly more successful yet equally strange design, also from France.
Besnier the Locksmith (1678)
Much of the history of aviation involves a long line of people who are altogether unassociated with flying but for a brief stint. One such person was Besnier, a locksmith from Sablé, France, who decided to put locks aside for a moment and try his hand at a flying machine.
Besnier had a bit more sense than the eccentric Desforges, and he understood that he didn't quite have the right materials to build a flying machine that would let him take off from the ground. Instead, the locksmith designed an apparatus made of two wooden rods placed over the shoulders, on each of which was attached two wings. The rods, according to the illustration, were also tied to the pilot's feet, which helped to pull the wings down alternately and flap the folded wings. Besnier never attempted to flap violently from the ground; he tested his contraption out on short distances, jumping from chairs, tables, window sills and, eventually, the tops of garrets and over rooftops. Although he became fairly skilled at floating for short distances, attempts at long distance flights only ended up in failure.
For yet another Frenchman's bungled flight apparatus, read the next page.
The Marquis de Bacqueville (1742)
The Marquis de Bacqueville (c. 1680-1760) appeared to have had very little experience in the way of flight, but one morning in 1742 he woke and announced his intent to fly from one side of the river Seine to the other. More specifically, the marquis planned to launch from a point in his mansion, located in Paris on a quay near the river, fly a distance of about 500 to 600 feet (152 to 183 meters) and land in the Jardin des Tuileries, the gardens situated near the palace of the same name.
A large crowd came to witness his attempt on the planned date in the same year. With large wings resembling paddles attached to both his hands and feet, the marquis jumped from a terrace on his mansion and proceeded to float toward the gardens. For a moment, the marquis appeared to have control, but after a short while he began to waver, and he eventually fell, slamming onto the deck of a barge and breaking his leg. Admitting defeat, the marquis gave up flying for good.
On the next page, you can read about another eccentric dreamer from Portugal.
João Torto (June 20, 1540, 5 p.m.)
The small European country of Portugal has a long history of aviation: Attempts at flight go back as early as Medieval times, and the Portuguese Air Museum dates back as far as 1909, only six years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
One famous attempt, however, made the wrong kind of history, ending up in failure.
The man who took the hit for Portuguese aviation history was João Torto. A true Renaissance man, Torto was a man of many trades: He was a nurse, a barber, a certified bleeder and healer, an astrologer and a teacher.
Unfortunately, Torto also had a big head about his well-rounded education, and decided he wanted another title added to the list -- aviator.
Using two pairs of calico cloth-covered wings attached to his arms and an eagle-shaped helmet, Torto jumped from the cathedral tower in St. Mateus square on June 20, 1540 at 5 p.m. (in front of a large crowd, of course) and fell a short distance to a nearby chapel.
Unfortunately, when he landed, his helmet slipped over his face and obscured his view. He fell to the ground, fatally wounding himself.
To read about a French fable that warned against the dangers of flight, see the next page.
Philippe le Picard's Laborer (c. 16th Century)
Because of several accounts detailing the uncertainty of attaching a pair of wings to one's arms and falling several stories, there were many stories and moral tales describing the dangers of flight attempts before the beginning of modern aviation. One 16th-century writer named Phillippe le Picard, who went by the penname of Philippe d-Alcripe, wrote one such story, infusing his fable with a bit of humor.
Le Picard's moral tale involves a French laborer, known across Normandy as a great swearer and drunkard. The fable says that one day, when the laborer had too much curdled milk to drink, he decided on a whim to make himself a flying apparatus and have a bit of fun. Without notifying his wife (who most likely would've scolded and slapped him into his senses), the worker cut a winnowing basket, used to separate corn kernels from husks, in half, fashioning them to his back. After failing to lift himself off the ground, the man got a brilliant idea: He needed to find a tail in order to look and act more like a bird.
Being a laborer, the man had a nearby shovel, which he placed between his legs and secured with his belt. Climbing to the top of a nearby pear tree, he jumped off, soared through the air for a split second and then fell headfirst to the ground, where he broke his shoulder. The shoulder never healed properly, preventing him from making any more drunken, misguided attempts.
Although le Picard's story is fictional, these kinds of experiments were common in that era. The following story, however, is probably the first attempt at human flight to be recorded in history.
Al-Djawhari (c. 1000)
The first more or less reliable historical account of attempted flight happened around the year A.D. 1000 in Nisabur, Arabia. The would-be aviator in question is al-Djawhari, the great Turkish scholar from Farab.
Sometime between the years 1002 and 1010 (several different accounts vary), al-Djawhari tied two pieces of wood to his arms and climbed the roof of a tall mosque in Nisabur. According to eyewitnesses, the scholar's bold move drew a large crowd, to whom he announced:
That, unfortunately, he did not do. Al-Djawhari fell straight to the ground and was killed, stamping into history the first recorded attempt at human flight.
To learn lots more on how flying actually works, glide safely to the next page.
Vintage plane wrecks scatter the globe. Learn more about the plane wrecks in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
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More Great Links
- Abrams, Michael. "Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them." New York: Harmony, 2006.
- Air Museum, Alverca, Portugal. "History - Torto." 2004. (July 7, 2008)http://www.emfa.pt/www/po/musar/historia/torto.php?>
- Chanute, O. "Progress in Flying Machines." New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1894.
- Hart, Clive. "The Prehistory of Flight." Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985.
- Rumerman, Judy. "The prehistory of powered flight -- an overview." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. 2003. (July 7, 2008)http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Prehistory/PH-OV.htm