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A Seventeenth-Century Icarus October 25, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Another episode in early failed or imaginary flying exploits. The following extracts are from the letters of Marin Mersenne (obit 1648) and were translated (frustratingly Beach doesn’t have the originals to hand) by Hart [132-133]. Enjoy these rumours from Paris from around the middle of the seventeenth century.

Here they are talking about a man from Reims who was once in your England and who has a machine of 32 square feet that he says he can make fly through the air anywhere he wants, with 8 or 10 men able to accompany him; time will tell the truth of this, and what will happen as a result. I hold it to be very difficult, if not impossible, to make a dwelling fly, or to flay a machine furnished with rafters etc.

Similar rumours of flight appear in a letter from his friend Deschamps in 1643.

I am reminded of this new Icarus who wanted to leave Paris to travel in his machine through the air to dine Constantinople and return to sup the same day in Paris, and who suggested that he would make very small machines for a single man costing only one pistole each. What is to be said about it at present? I don’t believe you should entrust yourself to his machine for your own voyage.

Then in 1648 Marin writes about a sky weapon, though note Constantinople again:

Here we have an unusual inventor who says that he can make a flying machine that could fly from here to Constantinople in a single day. Its wings 32 feet long and 12 feet wide; and he even believes that he can carry in it, along with 6 men, 4 or 5 large siege machines, so that nothing could possibly resist it. And I fear that these things may indeed at sometime see the light; the old times are overwhelmed and obliterated these days by the ingenuity of our inventors.

It has been suggested that these three passages should all be linked with a passage found in a satirical text named Aliquiniana, also from French published in 1694. Beachcombing does not understand why but the later story is, in any case, worth telling.

He killed this coachman and escaped to Brussels I believe. There he found a man who became his friend and who promised to obtain his pardon for him, basing his claim on the idea that he would go to find the king in Saint Germain in a machine that he had conceived and that the king, seeing him arrive through the air in so extraordinary an equipage, would not fail to grant his request. With this idea he shut himself  up at the top of a house in a large attic, and he remained there until he had completed his machine to which he attached sails and a kind of rudder. He asserted that the air would support it and that by means of the wind and this rudder he could make it travel wherever he wished. When the machine was finished this man took leave of all his friends; he had made a large opening in the attic in order to get it out. As he was on the point of sending it out into the open air, he realised that it might be too light, and that the wind might carry it too high. So as to avoid this accident he filled two sacks, each weighing fifty pounds, and attached them one to each foot, so that he could travel in the middle of the air without fearing that he might be carried off too precipitately. Hardly had they pushed the machine into the air than it fell twenty paces away on to a small house, the roof of which it stove in. [The unnamed pilot] broke his legs. Afterwards he wanted to sue the owner whom he said to be responsible for the harm which the roof of the house had done to him.

Beachcombing is always looking out for early records of flight: drbeachcombing AT yahoo Dot com

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27/10/2011: Neville writes in with one that Beach had never heard before: (story taken from SAPFA page: only first paragraph quoted here). ‘There is a belief that, in the early 1870s, John Goodman Houshold and his brother built a glider and launched it from the top of a 300 metre precipice on the farm Der Magtenburg, in the Karkloof area of KwaZuluNatal [in South Africa]. The first flight was just over 1 kilometer and a height of 50 to 80 meters was achieved. During the second flight the craft soared for a while before beginning a rapid descent in which it clipped a tree and crashed, breaking his leg in the process.’ Thanks Neville!