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No. 1142:
Legend and Flight

Today, old stories turn from legend into experimental development. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Daedalus, the 3400-year-old legend says, fashioned wings of feathers and wax so he and his son Icarus could fly from prison on Crete to safety in Sicily. When Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax melted and he fell to his death. Daedalus' flight and Icarus' fall have touched our minds ever since. Most ancient legends have some basis in history. I suspect this one does as well.

The Romans twisted the legend. They placed slaves in the coliseum with building materials. "Try to build wings and fly to freedom before the animals get you," they said. No one ever succeeded, of course.

But not all use of the legend was so cruel or crazy. In 852 AD, Moorish inventor Armen Firman built a canvas hang glider, flew off a tower in Cordoba, Spain, and landed safely. Soon after, another Spanish inventor with a similar name, Ibn Firnas, tried to repeat the trick. Like Daedalus he built wings covered with feathers. Firnas crashed and hurt his back. Later, he said he hadn't noticed how birds landed on their tails. He hadn't equipped himself with a tail for landing. And here the plot thickens.

About that time, the Vikings told a story with echoes of both Daedalus and Firnas, but with a new insight. Their hero, Wayland, fashioned feathered wings to escape an island prison. When his brother Egil tested them he crashed -- this time, because he'd failed to launch himself into the wind.

All these insights converge in a story told by the twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury. He writes about an Anglo-Saxon monk, Eilmer, of Wiltshire Abbey:

Eilmer ... was a man learned for those times ... and in his 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 on the summit of a tower, he flew for more than the distance of a furlong. But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by awareness of his rashness, he fell, broke his legs, and was lame ever after. He himself used to say that the cause of his failure was forgetting to put a tail on the back part.

The story of Eilmer's 220-yard glider flight has eerie similarities to the older tales. You might think the Islamic accounts found their way to Christian England and were recast there.

However, like each of the older stories, Eilmer's adds one more valuable bit of knowledge. If Firnas failed because he hadn't given himself a tail to land on, Eilmer crashed because his glider didn't have a tail to provide lateral stability.

So the legend gained flesh and blood as experience accumulated. Finally the Wright Brothers added their chapter. This time the legend was backed with photos and documents. And it seemed clear at last that the old legends really had to have been more than flights of mere fancy.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

White, L., Jr., Eilmer of Malmesbury, An Eleventh Century Aviator. Medieval Religion and Technology. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978, Chapter 4.

Scott, P., The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919. Reading MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., Chapter 1.

I told the story of Eilmer's flight from a different perspective in a very early program, Engines Episode 3.