Flights of Fancy: Medieval explorations into manned flight

(by Joan Szechtman)

In my research, I wondered whether Richard III would have known of any of Leonardo Da Vinci’s writings, coda, or inventions. Da Vinci was born the same year as Richard (1452), and there was known communication between England and Italy. However, I haven’t been able to determine whether Richard knew anything about Da Vinci, including his art (although, one would think Richard III might have known something about the artist, as Da Vinci was well known in the western world).

Back to flight: Da Vinci’s first codex for flight was developed in the 1480’s, where he designed an ornithopter. This design wasn’t new to western civilization, as the Greek legend of Deadalus and Icarus bears witness. Additionally, the Chinese were experimenting with kites and other gliders about 400 BC.

In terms of known flight, it wasn’t until 852 AD that Armen Firman, a Moor based in Cordoba, Spain, took his first and last flight when he leapt from a tower wearing his invention, a wing-like cloak. He had no control, and didn’t fly, but floated to the ground. It acted more like a parachute, and he only suffered minor injuries from this little adventure.

This idea, that man could fly, gained a foothold in Cordoba, as twenty-three years later, in 875, Ibn-Firnas built a glider of his own design. He celebrated successfully completing its fabrication by inviting the town’s people to witness his maiden flight. Quite a few climbed a nearby mountain and watched as Ibn-Firnas jumped from a tower and successfully glide in the air. However, the contraption had no tail or rudder, and the landing was rather harsh. Although he survived, Ibn-Firnas suffered sever back injuries, and died thirteen years later, possibly related to his injuries, from which he never completely recovered.

In 1010 AD, Monk Eilmer of Malmesbury brought fame to England when he strapped wings to his arms and feet and launched himself off a tower, flapping his way for about 200 yards of manned flight. Unfortunately for Eilmer, hereafter known as the flying monk, he wasn’t able to control his flight, and crashed rather unceremoniously, breaking both legs. He recovered and developed a new design that included a tail rudder (perhaps from observing how birds flew) He wanted to test his new design, but his superior would not allow it.

Eilmer probably learned of the Ibn-Firnas’s invention from tales brought back by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Late in the eleventh century, William of Malmesbury recorded this flight in his book, Gesta Regum Anglorum (The History of the English Kings).

It wasn’t until 1783 when Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier flew the first hot air balloon, and 1799 when George Cayley successfully sailed the first gliders. So that little burst of engineering creativity in the middle ages was quite astounding when one realizes it took almost another 300 years after Da Vinci and nearly a millennium after Armen Firman for man to finally get off the ground and stay aloft.

Wikipedia: Leonardo da Vinci
Wikipedia: Eilmer of Malmesbury
Flyers before Da Vinci