Leonardo DaVinci’s wing and glider designs have inspired literature, art, and cinema over the centuries. But plenty of other people have schemed to take to the air, long before the Wright Brothers. Here are just some of the inventors who devised methods of unpowered human flight...with mixed success.
The most famous mythic fliers in the Western canon are Icarus & Daedelus. In the Ramayana, demi-god brothers Jatayu & Sampani from the Ramayana fly too close to the sun and fall. There’s also Bladud, a King of Britons in 500 BC, mentioned briefly by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who attempted to fly from a temple in Trinovantum (London) and was killed when he fell.
Abbas ibn Firnas of Andalusia @ 800 AD — a polymath, poet, and inventor — is said to have tried to fly. According to Moroccan historian Ahmed Mohamed al-Moquarri, “He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.”
Eilmer of Malmesbury from around 1125 AD – The Monk Eilmer of Malmesbury is described in Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) by the Medieval historian William of Malmesbury as fixing wings to his hands and feet and launching himself from the top of a tower at Malmesbury Abbey: “He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 meters]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.”
Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi - 1638 - The 17th-century writings of Evliyâ Çelebi relate this story of Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, from 1630–1632: “First, he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydanı eight or nine times with eagle-like wings, using the force of the wind. Then... he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower (in contemporary Karaköy) and landed in the Doğancılar Square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: ‘This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people,’ and thus sent him to Algeria on exile. He died there.” At left is a Turkish Stamp commemorating Çelebi’s flight.
Otto Lilienthal (aka: The Glider King) In 1891, managed jumps and flights of up to approximately 25 meters. The updraft of a 10 meter per second wind against a hill could hold him stationary and aloft while being photographed. “In 1893, in the Rhinow Hills, he was able to achieve flight distances as long as 250 meters. This record remained unbeaten for him or anyone else at the time of his death.”
The Wright Brothers built gliders—including a version of the 1900 model pictured at left—but then shifted to powered craft, with greater success.
Around 1905, successes with the latter turned public attention from gliders to propeller planes, and public focus has, for the most part, remained with prop and engine planes ever since.
Sources: Lilienthal Museum; Wright Stories; NASA; William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England, III, pt. 1, of Rev. Joseph Stevenson, ed., The Church Historians of England (London: Seeleys, 1854); Lynn White, Jr., “Eilmer of Malmesbury: An Eleventh Century Aviator,” Technology and Culture, II, n. 2 (Spring 1961); Maxwell Woosnam, Eilmer: Eleventh Century Monk of Malmesbury (Malmesbury, UK: Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, 1986); Academia.edu; U.S. Air Force.
Fran Wilde’s first fantasy novel, Updraft, debuts from Tor on September 1, 2015. You can find her on twitter, facebook, and at franwilde.net. Top image: Drawings of Leonardo daVinci / Wikimedia Commons