JF Ptak Science Books Post 2242
There's a pair of short notices in two consecutive issues of Nature (September 22 and 29, 1910) that brings up a probably mostly-overlooked bit of thinking by Charles Darwin's (and Francis Galton's) grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Way before Charles (born 1809) and Francis (born 1822) Erasmus was a powerhouse Darwin, and a powerhouse-in-general. He was primarily a physician, but was also an inventor, physiologist, abolitionist, botanist, and inventor, among other things. He famously speculated on evolution, and less-famously on the coming of the steam age.
In the first article here, pointing out a piece in The Times by R. Meldola, it is shown that Darwin saw the coming of steam from a good distance away: “As the specific levity of air is too great for the support of great burthens by balloons, there seems to be no probable method of flying conveniently but by the power of steam, or some other explosive material, which another half-century may probably discover”.) The editors of Nature included the notice to provide a bit more evidence of Darwin's vision via his poetry, stating that he “foretold, in the following lines, the advent of aerial navigation”:
Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER'D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
-- Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.
In the next issue of Nature there's a short notice by Arthur Platt, “Erasmus Darwin on Flying Machines”, (page 397 of September 29, 1910), where he quotes Dawin on the coming of powered flight: “As the specific levity of air is too great for the support of great burthens by balloons, there seems to be no probable method of flying conveniently but by the power of steam, or some other explosive material, which another half-century may probably discover”.
That's pretty good. Over at the Erasmus Darwin House site is another interesting side of Darwin's interest in flight, where it is found in hi snotebooks a good and early understanding of teh mechanics of bird flight:
"In the 18th century there was still no satisfactory explanation for the mechanics of flight and, inquisitive by nature, Darwin appears to have set himself to the task. Sketched out in his commonplace book in 1777 at the height of the 18th century quest for automata and artificial life, the bird (technically a goose) will be brought to life in a steam punk style reminiscent of the era. Using a small reservoir of compressed air as the in-flight rewinding mechanism in the book, Darwin’s description of a bird’s flight is very close to reality, and appears to be the first complete account of a power-plant and the necessary cycle of the wings’ movement..."--Erasmus Darwin House, here.