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No. 278:
Mummy at the North Pole

Today, a mummy at the North Pole. 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.

The craziest thing happened the other day. An historian handed me a copy of an article from one of those magazines you read in the grocery checkout line. "Soviet researchers [find] an Egyptian mummy at the North Pole," the headline said. It claimed that ancient Egyptian explorers flew to the North Pole in a human-powered airplane and buried one of their dead there.

The man watched with a flickering smile while I read the article. He didn't know that I'd always wanted to invent headlines for one of those magazines myself. Still, I would've forgotten the incident, but the next day I read Anne Rice's new novel, The Mummy. Her hero is the reanimated mummy of Ramses II. He's bewitched by early-20th-century technology, and he cries,

There is so much to be discovered ... we must go to the North Pole in an aeroplane.

That was the second mummy flying to the North Pole in less than 24 hours. It got my attention. Then I remembered Clive Cussler's novel, Treasure. It's about a ship from ancient Egypt, found frozen into the ice of Northern Greenland with its crew perfectly preserved. The mad imagery goes on: Mary Shelley's Gothic tale of horror began and ended with a crazed Victor Frankenstein chasing his monster -- his living mummy -- across the Arctic ice.

All this takes yet another turn when we learn that Zoroastrians see the north wind as evil. Hindu writings tell us that Lord Siva had to behead his own son when he found him asleep with his head to the north. The legends of the hot arid countries associate cold, and the North, with evil and finally with the end of life. Dante located the portal of Hell at the North Pole and described its first circle as a region where sinners are frozen up to their noses in ice. And he placed his Hell in the universe as it had been described by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy 1300 years before.

Egypt and the North Pole -- warmth and frigidity -- life and death -- being aloft and being earthbound -- the themes intertwine. That crazy magazine retold the ancient myth of contrast and coupled it all with the exotic idea of a 6000-year old airplane. As mad as that part may seem, a team from MIT, fascinated by the myth of Daedalus, recently used 20th-century high-tech in an attempt to replicate Daedalus's flight. They flew a human-powered airplane 74 miles Northward from Crete -- nothing compared with the legends. It was only a fraction of Daedalus's mythical flight, and a hundredth of this Egyptian one. But no matter. The dream is what counts.

Our technology is deeply rooted in dreams no more substantial than these -- dreams of flight or dreams of teleportation to Mars. The person who cooked up that goofy article was recalling the same dream that, once upon a time, actually led us to flight.

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

(Theme music)

Rice, A., The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989, p. 203.

Cussler, C., Treasure. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.