LOOK UP IN THE AIR
Mankind has been fascinated by the flight of birds for Millennia. The possibility and attraction of human flight dates from at least the legend of Icarus in 60 bce. However, it was seen only as a legend, perhaps myth, until the tenth or eleventh century.
Eilmer of Malmesbury (who was also known as Elmer, Æthelmær and, because of a scribal error, Oliver) was a Benedictine monk from England. It has been suggested that he was born about 980 ce and that his attempt at flight took place sometime between 995 and 1010 ce. In his youth, he had read and believed the Greek myth of Dædalus, and he attempted to make and wear his own glider wings.
William of Malmesbury in the Gesta Regnum Anglorum of the early twelfth century noted that “He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Dædalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower [of Malmesbury Abbey], flew for more than a furlong. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.” It has been conjectured that his flight that the flight was only about 15 seconds. (In 1903, the Wright’s first non-glider flight was about 59 seconds.)
Modern calculations by Paul Chapman confirm the feasibility of the flight. “Launching into the southwest wind his initial descent would enable him to gain sufficient speed so that he could ride the air currents off the hillside. Lack of a tail would make continuing to head into the wind difficult and he would have been blown sideways to land where legend suggests—Oliver’s Lane.” Despite his injuries, “Eilmer set about rectifying this shortcoming, and was making plans for a second flight when his abbot placed an embargo on any further attempts, and that was that. For more than half a century after these events, the limping Eilmer was a familiar sight around the community of Malmesbury, where he became a distinguished scholar.”
Were there other and later (or even earlier) attempts at human flight before Leonard da Vinci’s drawing of a glider in the fifteenth century, though his physical attempts, if any, are unknown.
The unsuccessful attempt by Eilmer is fascinating but little known, and one can relate the story to MoPs at an event, accentuating the mechanics of the attempt, the attempt itself or how a near-sighted abbot’s attempts to keep his flock safe retarded the discover of aeronautics for a few hundred years. I would love to see the reconstruction of the wings at an event, although at the risk of sounding like that abbot, I might not want to see a physical attempt at the event!