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No. 3:
The Flying Monk

Today, we learn that men actually flew 1000 years ago. 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 twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury records an event that took place just after the year 1000. He tells us in these words about the 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.

In other words, this almost-unknown monk actually achieved a modestly successful glider flight over a distance of two football fields -- including the end zones. In fact, the story is given credence by that fact that Eilmer eventually crashed because his glider didn't have a tail to provide lateral stability.

How often we think of flight as something that's occurred only in the lifetime of people who are still living! Yet not only the dream of flight, but the fact of it as well, have been with us for millennia. The American historian Lynn White digs deeper and finds that Eilmer's flight had its own historical antecedents. He finds two somewhat sketchy accounts that indicate that a successful glider flight was made in the year 875 by a Moorish inventor named Ibn Firnas, living in Cordoba, Spain. It's entirely possible that word of Ibn Firnas's flight was brought to Eilmer by returning Crusaders.

An important thing about Eilmer's and Ibn Firnas's inventions of the glider is that both occurred in intellectual environments that fostered invention. Ibn Firnas lived during the Golden Age of Islamic art and science, and Eilmer belonged to the Benedictine order, which saw God Himself as a master craftsman.

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.

For more on these early flights, see Episode 1142.