There was a time when flying meant risking one’s life and limb and those trying to even attempt it were considered fools. But luckily, that didn’t deter early inventors who came up with amazing flying machines – strap-on wings really, copied from the birds themselves. We’ve taken a look at the first lighter-than-air flying attempts and found some mind-blowing contraptions and courage.
Eilmer of Malmesbury (~990-~1066)
Eilmer of Malmesbury was an adventurous monk who got inspired by the Greek fable of Daedalus, a skilled craftsman said to have fabricated wings out of birds’ feathers for himself and his son Icarus that allowed them to escape captivity. Eilmer (often called Elmer or even Oliver due to wrong transcription) was not lazy and one fine day in the early 11th century, donned a homemade glider and launched himself from a tower at Malmesbury Abbey. A fellow monk, famous medieval historian William of Malmesbury, wrote about the incident in 1125:
“He… fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after.”
Eilmer the “flying monk” as depicted at Malmesbury Abbey today:
Though crippled for life, Eilmer was undeterred and would have soon started a second attempt, this time equipping his glider with the missing tail, if the abbot of Malmesbury Abbey himself hadn’t forbidden any further attempts. Remarkable about this early recorded flying attempt is that it captures the spirit of medieval scholars who had figured out that flying was not magical but that air could be “worked” with the help of human invention.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
No list of inventors of early flying machines would be complete without Leonardo da Vinci. This 15th century painter and scientist was way ahead of his time and seamlessly combined art and natural philosophy, the forerunner of the modern sciences, leaving more than 13,000 pages of notes and drawings behind.
Leonardo’s design for a flying machine, circa 1505:
Image: Leonardo da Vinci
A strap-on glider with foldable wings:
Image: Leonardo da Vinci
His fascination for flight manifested itself in various studies on the flight of birds and, going a step further, ideas on how humans could use this knowledge to take flight themselves. He came up with plans for several flying machines, including an early helicopter and a light hang glider. While the former turned out to be impractical and unable to actually lift off, the latter has been successfully constructed and demonstrated.
One of his flying machines, reconstructed:
Drawing of the first helicopter:
Image: Leonardo da Vinci
Between da Vinci and the next inventor portrayed here, there were many more – as well as earlier – flying attempts, especially by Chinese, Arab and Indian scholars, but unfortunately, little has been preserved about them.
A design by Leonardo da Vinci for a glider, circa 1488:
Image: Leonardo da Vinci
Bartolomeo de Gusmão (1685-1724)
This early 18th century priest and naturalist demonstrates that it took two things to be a successful inventor at the time: a quiet place to study and money to fund one’s inventions. Bartolomeo de Gusmão found both; the first at the University of Coimbra, Portugal and the latter in his patron Marquês d’Abrantes of Lisbon.
Because Gusmão presented a formal petition to King John V of Portugal in 1709 regarding an airship he had invented, the specifications and even a drawing have been preserved.
Image: Bartolomeo de Gusmão
Given Portugal’s seafaring tradition, it is no surprise that this invention really looked like a giant ship that could fly through the air: a huge sail spread over a boat-like body. In case of no wind, air could be blown through tubes from the boat itself into the sail via bellows. Magnets, encased in two hollow metal balls, were supposed to propel the airship.
The „Passarola“ as a sand sculpture at FIESA 2009:
Image: Roger W. Haworth
Though the public demonstration of the “Passarola”, slated for June 24, 1709, never took place, Gusmão is said to have tested it at a later point and managed to fly for about 1 km over Lisbon. He was also on track with experiments on airplanes and hot air balloons but his death at only 39 years of age put an end to all plans.
Diego Marin Aguilera (1757-1799)
Diego Marin Aguilera was a Spanish inventor, who, unlike the others portrayed here, was not a learned scholar but an agricultural laborer who learned about flying from studying the eagles while tending to his animals and fields.
Might Aguilera’s wings have looked like this?
Image: Will Luo
For six years, Aguilera worked on a flying machine made of wood, iron, cloth and eagle and vulture feathers, held together by wrought iron joints made by the local blacksmith. The contraption also included stirrups for his feet and hand cranks to control its direction. The full moon night of May 13, 1793 was when Aguilera brought his glider to the highest part of the castle of Coruña del Conde and took off, expecting to be back “in a couple of days.”
Actually, he reached a height of 5-6 m and flew for about 360 m, after which he crash-landed due to a broken metal joint. More than his body, his ego was scratched and bruised, and after villagers accused him of heresy and fraud and burned his flapping wings, he never attempted to fly again. Today, however, he is called the “father of aviation” in Spain and the Air Force dedicated a monument to him.
Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896)
Last but not least, there’s Otto Lilienthal, a German pioneer of human aviation whose inventions coincided with the age of photography so that his extensive documents got supplemented by newspaper articles with photographs – proof, so to speak. Lilienthal was the first person to make repeated, successful gliding flights and became known as the “glider king.”
Otto Lilienthal with his small wing flapping apparatus in 1894:
Image: Ottomar Anschütz
Models of Lilienthal’s gliders:
Image: Matthias Kabel
Lilienthal controlled his gliders by shifting his body weight, therefore changing the centre of gravity, much like how modern hang gliders function. However, he held the glider by his shoulders rather than hanging from it, which made it difficult to maneuver. On August 9, 1896 Lilienthal undertook his last flight – a fatal one during which he fell from a height of 17 m and broke his spine.
Yippee, here I come – Otto Lilienthal in May 1895:
Image: Dr. Richard Neuhauss
Though Lilienthal researched lighter-than-air flight intensively and minutely described the flight of birds, he was later credited most with his developments of heavier-than-air flight and aviation and experiments to gather reliable aeronautical data. The Wright Brothers credited him as a major inspiration but soon decided to pursue manned flight, a whole different chapter with hot air balloons, the first airplanes and more.
What the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said about Diego Marin Aguilera is surely true for all the early inventors interested in flight: they were “endowed with a special technical ingenuity and … a good example of the ageless human aspiration toward flight.”