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No. 153:

Today, we mix a magic drink for Daedalus and Icarus. 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.

Why are the lines from The Wizard of Oz so compelling:

Somewhere, over the rainbow ...
Birds fly ...
Why then, Oh why, can't I?

The myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus also lays its strong hand on our elemental craving to fly. Daedalus was a mythical Greek architect and sculptor. When he offended Minos, the King of Crete, Minos threw him and Icarus into prison. Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers. He and Icarus used the wings to fly to Sicily and to freedom. In some versions, Icarus flies too high -- too close to the sun. The wax melts and he falls to his death. Rockets have carried us free of the earth; but no one's come close to duplicating Daedalus's flight under his own power.

In 1985 a team of engineers from MIT set themselves a more modest objective, but a fearsome one nevertheless. They set out to fly from Crete -- not to Sicily, 500 miles away -- but to the island of Santorini, 74 miles north of Crete. But even that was over three times the existing world record for human-powered flight.

They built an airplane, not of wax and feathers, but of carbon-fiber composites and plastics. And a wild machine it was! It gave a whole new meaning to the word "spindly." It's wingspan outreached the Boeing 727's, but it weighed only 70 pounds. Of course, they named it Daedalus.

The most serious problem was human endurance. The team carefully studied anatomy and metabolism. They did extensive testing of 24 men and one woman and finally gave the nod to a Greek bicycle champion, Kanellos Kanellopoulos. Now he'd have to burn up his body energy at the rate of one kilowatt for four hours running.

To sustain him on the trip, the team developed a special drink -- one that would maintain balances of glucose, sodium, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and water. Kanellopoulos would have to drink about a gallon of the stuff during the flight.

Armed with this witch's brew, he made it in April, 1988 -- 74 miles in four hours -- a remarkable world's record. Only one thing marred the success. As the plane approached the coast of Santorini, a powerful crosswind caught it and snapped its tail boom. It splashed down safely, just 30 feet from the shore. This Daedalus seems to have carried a little of Icarus with it.

Somewhere, over the rainbow, we crave to fly. Somehow, leaving engines behind gives us back the magic -- the myth -- that we so crave to reclaim. And, someday, inventive minds will find a way to make Daedalus's flight all the way to Sicily -- all the way from myth to reality.

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

(Theme music)

Gorman, C., On the Wings of Mythology. Time, May 2, 1988, p. 67.

Kluger, J., Human-Powered Flight. Discover, Vol. 10, January 1989, pp. 70-71.

Langford, J. S., Triumph of Daedalus. National Geographic, Vol. 174, August 1988, pp. 190-199.

Peterson, I., On a Wing and a Pedal. Science News, Vol. 133, April 30, 1988, p. 277.

This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1634.


Daedalus, now hanging in the Boston Museum of Natural History