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  • Thinking of Flying in the Eighteenth Century September 11, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    It is always curious to compare the reality of the future with the way that future was viewed in the past. Take speculations over flying. There seems to have come a point in the eighteenth century when the bien pensants realised – perhaps a bit like deep space exploration for the modern world – that it was just a matter of time before man and women got their wings. At this point the speculation over what this would mean became fevered. Take the following extraordinary dialogue from a French publication of 1732 (the translation dates to 1733) (118).

    Prior: The Art of Flying would be the greatest Calamity that could happen to Society.

    Chevalier: On the contrary, Sir, I should think this Invention would save us Abundance of Labour. We should be sooner acquainted with what we are desirous of knowing; and if  we had once found out a small Machine, we could soon build a larger. We should not only traverse the Air our selves, but might likewise convey Cargoes of Merchandize through that Element.

    Eighteenth-century cargo planes! But the Count does not agree.

    Count: This is certain, that were Men capable of Flying, no Avenue could be inaccessible to Vengeance and inordinate Desires. The Habitations of Mankind would be so many Theatres of Murder and Robbery. What Precautions could we take against an Enemy who would have it in his Power to surprise us both by Day and Night?

    Well, they got this right. On today’s sad anniversary, above all: lest we forget… But what is fascinating is that the Count is not imagining planes with bombs, let alone planes as bombs.

    Count: How should we preserve our Money, our Furniture and our Fruits from the Avidity of a Sett of Plunderers, furnished with good Arms to force open our Houses, and with good Wings to carry off their Booty, and elude our Pursuit? This sort of Trade would be the Refuge of every indigent and impious Person.

    So we have to imagine thieves with feathers. Now for the voice of religion.

    Prior: I may add to this, that the Art we are speaking of, would intirely change the Face of Nature; we should be compelled to abandon our Cities and the Country, and to bury ourselves in subterraneous Caves, or to imitate Eagles and other Birds of Prey; we should retire like them, to inaccessible Rocks and craggy Mountains, from whence we should from Time to Time sally down upon the Fruits and Animals that accommodate our Necessities…

    So there you are: death by flying. Progress is never a good thing.

    Any other examples of clever people saying foolish things about the future: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS: We have a winner for flight in seventeenth-century Warsaw.