THE EVOLUTION OF THE AEROPLANE
I. THE PERIOD OF LEGEND
The blending of fact and fancy which men call legend reached its fullest and richest expression in the golden age of Greece, and thus it is to Greek mythology that one must turn for the best form of any legend which foreshadows history. Yet the prevalence of legends regarding flight, existing in the records of practically every race, shows that this form of transit was a dream of many peoples--man always wanted to fly, and imagined means of flight.
In this age of steel, a very great part of the inventive genius of man has gone into devices intended to facilitate transport, both of men and goods, and the growth of civilisation is in reality the facilitation of transit, improvement of the means of communication. He was a genius who first hoisted a sail on a boat and saved the labour of rowing; equally, he who first harnessed ox or dog or horse to a wheeled vehicle was a genius--and these looked up, as men have looked up from the earliest days of all, seeing that the birds had solved the problem of transit far more completely than themselves. So it must have appeared, and there is no age in history in which some dreamers have not dreamed of the conquest of the air; if the caveman had left records, these would without doubt have showed that he, too, dreamed this dream. His main aim, probably, was self-preservation; when the dinosaur looked round the corner, the prehistoric bird got out of the way in his usual manner, and prehistoric manÄ such of him as succeeded in getting out of the way after his fashion--naturally envied the bird, and concluded that as lord of creation in a doubtful sort of way he ought to have equal facilities. He may have tried, like Simon the Magician, and other early experimenters, to improvise those facilities; assuming that he did, there is the groundwork of much of the older legend with regard to men who flew, since, when history began, legends would be fashioned out of attempts and even the desire to fly, these being compounded of some small ingredient of truth and much exaggeration and addition.
In a study of the first beginnings of the art, it is worth while to mention even the earliest of the legends and traditions, for they show the trend of men's minds and the constancy of this dream that has become reality in the twentieth century. In one of the oldest records of the world, the Indian classic Mahabarata, it is stated that 'Krishna's enemies sought the aid of the demons, who built an aerial chariot with sides of iron and clad with wings. The chariot was driven through the sky till it stood over Dwarakha, where Krishna's followers dwelt, and from there it hurled down upon the city missiles that destroyed everything on which they fell.' Here is pure fable, not legend, but still a curious forecast of twentieth century bombs from a rigid dirigible. It is to be noted in this case, as in many, that the power to fly was an attribute of evil, not of good—it was the demons who built the chariot, even as at Friedrichshavn. Mediaeval legend in nearly every cas,attributes flight to the aid of evil powers, and incites well-disposed people to stick to the solid earth--though, curiously enough, the pioneers of medieval times were very largely of priestly type, as witness the monk of Malmesbury.
The legends of the dawn of history, however, distribute the power of flight with less of prejudice. Egyptian sculpture gives the figure of winged men; the British Museum has made the winged Assyrian bulls familiar to many, and both the cuneiform records of Assyria and the hieroglyphs of Egypt record flights that in reality were never made. The desire fathered the story then, and until Clement Ader either hopped with his Avion, as is persisted by his critics, or flew, as is claimed by his friends.
While the origin of many legends is questionable, that of others is easy enough to trace, though not to prove. Among the credulous the significance of the name of a people of Asia Minor, the Capnobates, 'those who travel by smoke,' gave rise to the assertion that Montgolfier was not first in the field—or rather in the air--since surely this people must have been responsible for the first hot-air balloons. Far less questionable is the legend of Icarus, for here it is possible to trace a foundation of fact in the story. Such a tribe as Daedalus governed could have had hardly any knowledge of the rudiments of science, and even their ruler, seeing how easy it is for birds to sustain themselves in the air, might be excused for believing that he, if he fashioned wings for himself, could use them. In that belief, let it be assumed, Daedalus made his wings; the boy, Icarus, learning that his father had determined on an attempt at flight secured the wings and fastened them to his own shoulders. A cliff seemed the likeliest place for a 'take-off,' and Icarus leaped from the cliff edge only to find that the possession of wings was not enough to assure flight to a human being. The sea that to this day bears his name witnesses that he made the attempt and perished by it.
In this is assumed the bald story, from which might grow the legend of a wise king who ruled a peaceful people--'judged, sitting in the sun,' as Browning has it, and fashioned for himself wings with which he flew over the sea and where he would, until the prince, Icarus, desired to emulate him. Icarus, fastening the wings to his shoulders with wax, was so imprudent as to fly too near the sun, when the wax melted and he fell, to lie mourned of water-nymphs on the shores of waters thenceforth Icarian. Between what we have assumed to be the base of fact, and the legend which has been invested with such poetic grace in Greek story, there is no more than a century or so of re-telling might give to any event among a people so simple and yet so given to imagery.
We may set aside as pure fable the stories of the winged horse of Perseus, and the flights of Hermes as messenger of the gods. With them may be placed the story of Empedocles, who failed to take Etna seriously enough, and found himself caught by an eruption while within the crater, so that, flying to safety in some hurry, he left behind but one sandal to attest that he had sought refuge in space--in all probability, if he escaped at all, he flew, but not in the sense that the aeronaut understands it. But, bearing in mind the many men who tried to fly in historic times, the legend of Icarus and Daedalus, in spite of the impossible form in which it is presented, may rank with the story of the Saracen of Constantinople, or with that of Simon the Magician. A simple folk would naturally idealise the man and magnify his exploit, as they magnified the deeds of some strong man to make the legends of Hercules, and there, full-grown from a mere legend, is the first record of a pioneer of flying. Such a theory is not nearly so fantastic as that which makes the Capnobates, on the strength of their name, the inventors of hot-air balloons. However it may be, both in story and in picture, Icarus and his less conspicuous father have inspired the Caucasian mind, and the world is the richer for them.
Of the unsupported myths--unsupported, that is, by even a shadow of probability--there is no end. Although Latin legend approaches nearer to fact than the Greek in some cases, in others it shows a disregard for possibilities which renders it of far less account. Thus Diodorus of Sicily relates that one Abaris travelled round the world on an arrow of gold, and Cassiodorus and Glycas and their like told of mechanical birds that flew and sang and even laid eggs. More credible is the story of Aulus Gellius, who in his Attic Nights tells how Archytas, four centuries prior to the opening of the Christian era, made a wooden pigeon that actually flew by means of a
mechanism of balancing weights and the breath of a mysterious spirit hidden within it. There may yet arise one credulous enough to state that the mysterious spirit was precursor of the internal combustion engine, but, however that may be, the pigeon of Archytas almost certainly existed, and perhaps it actually glided or flew for short distances--or else Aulus Gellius was an utter liar, like Cassiodorus and his fellows. In far later times a certain John Muller, better known as Regiomontanus, is stated to have made an artificial eagle which accompanied Charles V. on his entry to and exit from Nuremberg, flying above the royal procession. But, since Muller died in 1436 and Charles was born in 1500, Muller may be ruled out from among the pioneers of mechanical flight, and it may be concluded that the historian of this event got slightly mixed in his dates.
Thus far, we have but indicated how one may draw from the richest stores from which the Aryan mind draws inspiration, the Greek and Latin mythologies and poetic adaptations of history. The existing legends of flight, however, are not thus to be localised, for with two possible exceptions they belong to all the world and to every civilisation, however primitive. The two exceptions are the Aztec and the Chinese; regarding the first of these, the Spanish conquistadores destroyed such civilisation as existed in Tenochtitlan so thoroughly that, if legend of flight was among the Aztec records, it went with the rest; as to the Chinese, it is more than passing strange that they, who claim to have known and done everything while the first of history was shaping, even to antedating the discovery of gunpowder that was not made by Roger Bacon, have not yet set up a claim to successful handling of a monoplane some four thousand years ago, or at least to the patrol of the Gulf of Korea and the Mongolian frontier by a forerunner of the 'blimp.'
The Inca civilisation of Peru yields up a myth akin to that of Icarus, which tells how the chieftain Ayar Utso grew wings and visited the sun--it was from the sun, too, that the founders of the Peruvian Inca dynasty, Manco Capac and his wife Mama Huella Capac, flew to earth near Lake Titicaca, to make the only successful experiment in pure tyranny that the world has ever witnessed. Teutonic legend gives forth Wieland the Smith, who made himself a dress with wings and, clad in it, rose and descended against the wind and in spite of it. Indian mythology, in addition to the story of the demons and their rigid dirigible, already quoted, gives the story of Hanouam, who fitted himself with wings by means of which he sailed in the air and, according to his desire, landed in the sacred Lauka. Bladud, the ninth king of Britain, is said to have crowned his feats of wizardry by making himself wings and attempting to fly--but the effort cost him a broken neck. Bladud may have been as mythic as Uther, and again he may have been a very early pioneer. The Finnish epic, 'Kalevala,' tells how Ilmarinen the Smith 'forged an eagle of fire,' with 'boat's walls between the wings,' after which he 'sat down on the bird's back and bones,' and flew.
Pure myths, these, telling how the desire to fly was characteristic of every age and every people, and how, from time to time, there arose an experimenter bolder than his fellows, who made some attempt to translate desire into achievement. And the spirit that animated these pioneers, in a time when things new were accounted things accursed, for the most part, has found expression in this present century in the utter daring and disregard of both danger and pain that stamps the flying man, a type of humanity differing in spirit from his earthbound fellows as fully as the soldier differs from the priest.
Throughout mediaeval times, records attest that here and there some man believed in and attempted flight, and at the same time it is clear that such were regarded as in league with the powers of evil. There is the half-legend, half-history of Simon the Magician, who, in the third year of the reign of Nero announced that he would raise himself in the air, in order to assert his superiority over St Paul. The legend states that by the aid of certain demons whom he had prevailed on to assist him, he actually lifted himself in the air-- but St Paul prayed him down again. He slipped through the claws of the demons and fell headlong on the Forum at Rome, breaking his neck. The 'demons' may have been some primitive form of hot-air balloon, or a glider with which the magician attempted to rise into the wind; more probably, however, Simon threatened to ascend and made the attempt with apparatus as unsuitable as Bladud's wings, paying the inevitable penalty. Another version of the story gives St Peter instead of St Paul as the one whose prayers foiled Simon --apart from the identity of the apostle, the two accounts are similar, and both define the attitude of the age toward investigation and experiment in things untried.
Another and later circumstantial story, with similar evidence of some fact behind it, is that of the Saracen of Constantinople, who, in the reign of the Emperor Comnenus--some little time before Norman William made Saxon Harold swear away his crown on the bones of the saints at Rouen--attempted to fly round the hippodrome at Constantinople, having Comnenus among the great throng who gathered to witness the feat. The Saracen chose for his starting-point a tower in the midst of the hippodrome, and on the top of the tower he stood, clad in a long white robe which was stiffened with rods so as to spread and catch the breeze, waiting for a favourable wind to strike on him. The wind was so long in coming that the spectators grew impatient. 'Fly, O Saracen!' they called to him. 'Do not keep us waiting so long while you try the wind!' Comnenus, who had present with him the Sultan of the Turks, gave it as his opinion that the experiment was both dangerous and vain, and, possibly in an attempt to controvert such statement, the Saracen leaned into the wind and 'rose like a bird 'at the outset. But the record of Cousin, who tells the story in his Histoire de Constantinople, states that 'the weight of his body having more power to drag him down than his artificial wings had to sustain him, he broke his bones, and his evil plight was such that he did not long survive.'
Obviously, the Saracen was anticipating Lilienthal and his gliders by some centuries; like Simon, a genuine experimenter--both legends bear the impress of fact supporting them. Contemporary with him, and belonging to the history rather than the legends of flight, was Oliver, the monk of Malmesbury, who in the year 1065 made himself wings after the pattern of those supposed to have been used by Daedalus, attaching them to his hands and feet and attempting to fly with them. Twysden, in his Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores X, sets forth the story of Oliver, who chose a high tower as his starting-point, and launched himself in the air. As a matter of course, he fell, permanently injuring himself, and died some time later.
After these, a gap of centuries, filled in by impossible stories of magical flight by witches, wizards, and the like—imagination was fertile in the dark ages, but the ban of the church was on all attempt at scientific development, especially in such a matter as the conquest of the air. Yet there were observers of nature who argued that since birds could raise themselves by flapping their wings, man had only to make suitable wings, flap them, and he too would fly. As early as the thirteenth century Roger Bacon, the scientific friar of unbounded inquisitiveness and not a little real genius, announced that there could be made 'some flying instrument, so that a man sitting in the middle and turning some mechanism may put in motion some artificial wings which may beat the air like a bird flying.' But being a cautious man, with a natural dislike for being burnt at the stake as a necromancer through having put forward such a dangerous theory, Roger added, 'not that I ever knew a man who had such an instrument, but I am particularly acquainted with the man who contrived one.' This might have been a lame defence if Roger had been brought to trial as addicted to black arts; he seems to have trusted to the inadmissibility of hearsay evidence.
Some four centuries later there was published a book entitled Perugia Augusta, written by one C. Crispolti of Perugia—the date of the work in question is 1648. In it is recorded that 'one day, towards the close of the fifteenth century, whilst many of the principal gentry had come to Perugia to honour the wedding of Giovanni Paolo Baglioni, and some lancers were riding down the street by his palace, Giovanni Baptisti Danti unexpectedly and by means of a contrivance of wings that he had constructed proportionate to the size of his body took off from the top of a tower near by, and with a horrible hissing sound flew successfully across the great Piazza, which was densely crowded. But (oh, horror of an unexpected accident!) he had scarcely flown three hundred paces on his way to a certain point when the mainstay of the left wing gave way, and, being unable to support himself with the right alone, he fell on a roof and was njured in consequence. Those who saw not only this flight, but also the wonderful construction of the framework of the wings, said--and tradition bears them out--that he several times flew over the waters of Lake Thrasimene to learn how he might gradually come to earth. But, notwithstanding his great genius, he never succeeded.'
This reads circumstantially enough, but it may be borne in mind that the date of writing is more than half a century later than the time of the alleged achievement--the story had had time to
round itself out. Danti, however, is mentioned by a number of writers, one of whom states that the failure of his experiment was due to the prayers of some individual of a conservative turn of mind, who prayed so vigorously that Danti fell appropriately enough on a church and injured himself to such an extent as to put an end to his flying career. That Danti experimented, there is little doubt, in view of the volume of evidence on the point, but the darkness of the Middle Ages hides the real truth as to the results of his experiments. If he had actually flown over Thrasimene, as alleged, then in all probability both Napoleon and Wellington would have had air scouts at Waterloo.
Danti's story may be taken as fact or left as fable, and with it the period of legend or vague statement may be said to end--the rest is history, both of genuine experimenters and of charlatans. Such instances of legend as are given here are not a tithe of the whole, but there is sufficient in the actual history of flight to bar out more than this brief mention of the legends, which, on the whole, go farther to prove man's desire to fly than his study and endeavour to solve the problems of the air.
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