An Early Attempt at Flight

By Lederle, Cheryl | The Science Teacher, April-May 2018 | Go to article overview

An Early Attempt at Flight


Lederle, Cheryl, The Science Teacher


Orville and Wilbur Wright are known as the brothers who first solved the problem of powered, controlled, and sustained human flight, but few remember the inventors who tried but didn't succeed. In some cases, records survive that offer insights into what they were thinking during their experiments. In Vienna in the early 19th century, Swiss watchmaker Jakob Degen constructed and unsuccessfully tested a human-powered flying machine featuring a pair of wings operated by arms and legs.

Studying the detailed technical illustration of Degen's model both offers insights and raises questions about his approaches to solving the problem. The construction looks lightweight and featured a large pair of braced and moveable wings. In addition to the wings, Degen's model has a power source--muscles in human arms and legs--just as birds or bats use their muscles. Students might wonder why his model didn't succeed, prompting a study of aerodynamics, other attempts at solving the problem, and the features of successful flying machines.

Aircraft that fly by flapping wings, such as Degen's model, are called ornithopters. The history of ornithopters includes variations and innovations by Leonardo da Vinci, Alphonse Penaude, and Otto Lilienthal.

This detailed drawing invites close study and reflection on the thinking of early pioneers' attempts to solve the problem of human flight. …

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