JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 78
For thousands of years the most popular fuel of the common idea for humans to achieve flight was through the application of bird flight mechanics. (The other common vehicle employed balloons of one sort or another—I’ll look at that later.)
Before the age of the actual application of these principles there were long sustained bird-like semi-humanoid-godlike-birdforms throughout mythology.
Kings and overarching rulers living and imagined were seen to perform bird-supported and flighted adventures; the Old Testament is populated by winged seraphim and cherubin; Egyptian gods and goddesses were depicted with long, graceful vulture-like wings; in ca. 160 ACE Lucian of Samosata wrote one of the earliest accounts of space flight with Icaromenippus, who reached ultra-great heights with a device employing eagle and vulture wings, using them in an attack upon Heaven; a Chinese emperor of the Han dynasty reputedly kept an eye on his empire from a flying chariot; the famous Bellerophon took flight on Pagasus (the horse with bird-like wings, and confusing my point some) to spear the Chimera. Closer to the point is the flight of Daedalus and his waxy birdwings, as well as Thidireks (from a Germanic myth) who uses a suit of artificial feathers to fly; but much closer to the point of this post was the Persian king Keykavus--he oversaw his lands from the comfort of his throne, which was transported by four apparently very muscular eagles.
Among the many things that Leonardo (or Leonardo da Vinci but almost never da Vinci as in Mr. Dan Brown) was working on as he was semi-creating the Renaissance was a system of solo flight for man. His earliest system was based on a large winged device in which a person would be prone, flapping flexible wings via the use of a pulley system, looking quite birdlike. Later on Leonardo would develop multi-winged systems, some of which would be quite large and requiring the operator to be upright, making the whole look more like a helicopter than a man-filled bird.
Perhaps the greatest visionary of techno-anthropormorphic human flight was Cyrano de Bergaerac. Before he was the object of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play, de Bergerac was a massively creative author, producing, among other things, the book Histoire des Etats et Empires de la Lune (History of the States and Empires of the Moon, published posthumously in 1657), followed by Histoire des Etats et Empires du Soleil (History of the States and Empires of the Sun, again, published further and deeper into his life’s surrender, 1662), both eventually collected as L'Autre Monde (Other Worlds). Bergerac introduces us, the humble reader, to one of the most important concepts in the history of literature--namely that we humans were not only not alone in the universe, but that we were not even the dominant culture, and indeed we were actually hated by some of the other more advanced species.
Now that is some good thinking.
In a very complicated series of adventures the protagonists are brought to the moon and to the other side of the sun and such by being flown in a basket attached to the neck of a giant bird. (In one part of the escapade, Cyrano takes us to the moon, which is a paradise, where the adventurer is captured and imprisoned by the intelligent indigenous folks, and from which he escapes by clinging to a soul being removed by the devil. (!))
Another spectacular visonary was Francis Godwin, who brought us about the first book on interplanetary space travel with his The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither; by F.G., B. of H.; to which is added Nuncius inanimatus, written in Latin by the same author, and now Englished by a person of worth (London, 1657). Here we encounter the tales of y Domingo Gonsales, who Godwin gets to teh moon on a device powered by captured birds, becoming also one of the earliest literary proponents of the plurality of world's thesis.
A quick look at the chronology of imaginary flight shows that there are lots of other attempts at flight—but none that I can identify quickly that use birds to lift and carry its cargo to the sun.
Fast forward to the 19th century though and we come into the veritable heyday of anthropomorphic flight attempts. Here we find very notable attempts by George Cayley—who was probably the first person to truly understand the dynamics and physics of flight http://tinyurl.com/3pw22g who in 1796 creates his first aerial device—a model helicopter with contra-rotating propellers reminiscent of the Leonardo device.
Victor Tatin’s ornithopter of 1875 actually was a s=much more sound “read” than it looked. He had a very advanced idea of the mechanics of flight, understanding the conditions, and physics, and the resistance of the air, and so on, but just couldn’t translate this understanding into a realistic design. This is especially true when he hit upon one of the key ingredients to the Wright success—a good, powerful but very lightweight engine. This was pretty big news, though Tatin would up a suicide.
han unrealized theoretical understanding. Lilienthal was one of the most important figures in the development of flight in the nineteenth century, making the first heavier than air gliding flights in what looked quite a bit like bird wings. (Wilbur wright said of him; “Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important. ... It is true that attempts at gliding had been made hundreds of years before him, and that in the nineteenth century, Cayley, Spencer, Wenham, Mouillard, and many others were reported to have made feeble attempts to glide, but their failures were so complete that nothing of value resulted" as found in The Aero Club of America Bulletin, Sept. 1912 and also in the article on Lilenthal in WIki.) ) He would die in 1896 in a gliding accident, falling to a crumpled death.
This was also the fate of Percy Pilcher, a great English aviator, who was also quite close to developing a powered heavier than aircraft, but was killed in 1899 before having a chance to test the craft.
Just a reminder here that this is just a short essay on the history of flight using birds or bird-like design, and not an overall history.
Note: The title of this post comes from the World War II (late 1942) patriotic song, with words by Harold Adamson and music by Jimmy McHugh. It tells the tale of a plane struggling home after a bombing raid:
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer
What a show, what a fight
Boys, we really hit our target for tonight
How we sing as we limp through the air
Look below, there’s our field over there
Though there’s one motor gone
We can still carry on
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.