Condensation streaks crisscrossing the sky and airplane lights blinking against the stars are regular sights these days. In reality, there is a near-constant ebb and flow of air traffic in many regions of the globe. This, on the other hand, is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Only birds could fly for thousands of years, and all man could do was stand stuck beneath the vaulted sky, dreaming of one day soaring to the skies.
The key successes in flying during the past three centuries have been carefully chronicled. Historians credit the Montgolfier brothers of France with inventing balloon flight in 1783, and Otto Lilienthal of Germany with inventing glider flying in the 1890s. In 1903, the Wright brothers of America conducted the first successful flight in a tiny motor aircraft. While these achievements were significant, they were far from man’s first effort at flight.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint man’s first effort at flying. To begin with, what exactly qualifies as an effort — a caveman waving his arms and pursuing a flock of geese? How else could early humans have sought to emulate the flying mechanics of birds, as absurd as this picture may be? They had little knowledge of physics and relied only on their perceptions. This experiment is still being carried out by young children today.
Man’s desire to fly is so old that it appears in almost all mythologies and faiths. Images of winged humanoids may be found in the art of every ancient civilization. Such vistas have been uncovered in 4,300-year-old caverns by archeologists. More stories of mankind flying to the sky on artificial wings may be found throughout history.
So, what was man’s first effort to fly like? The surviving artifacts and historical narratives restrict our comprehension of the past, but a few stories from history and folklore stand out above the others.
Prepare to be disillusioned if you believe Wile E. Coyote was the first to put on a pair of wings and fly over a cliff. Learn how many thousands of years mankind have wasted tumbling from tremendous heights in the hopes of achieving flight on the following page.
One of the most famous (and mythological) instances of early flying is the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Legend has it that the father and son flew across the sky on wings made of wood, wax, thread, and bird feathers. Icarus died when the sun melted the wax keeping his wings together, whereas Daedalus survived the journey. Historians place the beginning of the narrative about 1400 B.C.
Is there any truth in this mythological story, though? Could Daedalus have existed, in some form or another, more than three millennia ago, when man sought to fly through the air like a bird using rudimentary technology?
We don’t know whether Daedalus and his son had any historical foundation, but they weren’t the only ones who risked their lives on a set of fake wings. King Bladud attempted a similar achievement about 850 B.C., according to Fabyan’s “The Chronicles” (A.D. 1596). The king donned wings, ascended to the top of the Apollo Temple (in what is now London), and leapt into the air [source: Hart]. Unfortunately, the Bronze Age aviator died soon after. While most historians regard the narrative as mythology, others feel it may be based on reality.
Throughout the previous 2,000 years, similar stories of botched flights on false wings have surfaced. A winged performer sought to resuscitate a celebration thrown by Roman Emperor Nero about A.D. 60, only to die [source: Hart]. Surprisingly, this wasn’t even thought to be an unusual event at the time. Other occurrences followed, with would-be aviators jumping from mosques, cathedrals, castle walls, and towers all across the world, frequently into death’s embrace. As many as a dozen of the 50 efforts chronicled in Clive Hart’s “The Prehistory of Flight” may have really flown or glided for a few seconds.
Early aviation pioneers used a variety of methods, including artificial wings. Around 1,000 B.C., the Chinese popularized — and maybe developed — the kite. Men taking to the air using these gadgets is mentioned in various stories from the following centuries. Marco Polo, the famous Italian traveler, claimed to have witnessed Chinese sailors throw inebriated crewmembers into the air on gigantic kites when he returned from China in 1295. Legendary robber Ishikawa Goemon was escorted into a strongly defended castle by his accomplices while strung from a big kite, according to a late-16th-century Japanese myth.
Regardless of when humanity first attempted to fly, the truth remains that man has yearned for the ability to fly since prehistory. We have only just arrived at a moment in history where we may take this technical accomplishment for granted.