The Sky Horizon

Article excerpt

IN the beginning was the bird and the bird was in the sky, and earthbound humans sought to imitate it.

In the words of the French poet Saint-John Perse, "The bird. . . by encouraging humans to fly, alone emboldened them afresh."(1)

Once people had worked out how birds flew, they mistakenly believed that they could make wings for themselves and that they would be strong enough to work them.

While waiting for wings that worked--and above all for an engine to power them--the people of Antiquity (which was, after all, modern in its day) first made imaginary beings fly: gods and demi-gods, heroes and spirits. To this we owe the story of Icarus (not forgetting the inventor Daedalus, his father), a recurrent theme in the literature and imagery of every age.

We read of magic carpets, feathered capes, winged horses ... and of how humankind's first imagined flights were borne on the pinions of griffins, eagles or geese. Before aspiring to take flight unaided, man first acquired experience of falling: one after another, the would-be birdmen of old crashed to the ground.

Then one day a visionary came close to finding the answer. Leonardo da Vinci seems to have foreseen flying machines, helicopters, parachutes. To judge from his notebooks, he may even have experimented with such devices.

Some time later, the French philosopher Rene Descartes exchanged instructive letters with Pere Mersenne on the question of "whether the art of flying is possible ... and if men can fly as high, as far and as fast as birds. . ."

The French fantasist Cyrano de Bergerac devised "six ways of violating the virgin skies". The Marquis de Bacqueville donned wings to try to fly across the Seine, and Father Gallien surmised that "the art of aerial navigation" might lie in letting oneself be carried along on "air-rafts" by currents (jet-streams, perhaps?) "at the altitude where hall forms".


Oddly enough, all these precursors of flight came up with the same prescription: all that was required was to devise "an ingenious mechanism". The formula crops up again and again, but is never accompanied by further details. As early as 1250, the English philosopher Roger Bacon suggested that "Flying machines could be constructed in which men, seated or suspended in the centre, could turn cranks that would operate wings to beat the air."(2)

The project was in the air... Everyone was talking about it except scientists.

In 1782, an influential and respected mathematician and astronomer by the name of Joseph Jerome de Lalande, a member of the French Academy, affirmed that "if men of learning keep silent, it is not through contempt. Rather it is demonstrably impossible, in every sense, that a man could rise into, or even stay up in, the air... Only an ignoramus would try to do so."

In 1783, Pilatre de Rozier answered him by taking off on the first balloon flight, accompanied by the Marquis d'Arlandes.

Soon Victor Hugo was enthusing:

And Newton's science flies away

Riding a Pindaric ode!(3)

Writers, scientists and engineers such as Nadar, Jules Verne, Mouillard, Cayley, Marey and Lilienthal made calculations, speculations, experiments. …