Our Neverending Envy of Birds
Now A.I. teaches gliders to fly with air currents, to surf convection like birds. We have come full circle with the fulfillment of dreams denied to our ancient-grandfathers.
(Microsoft and U.C. San Diego have been exploring how to “train” A.I. Gliders.)
Humanity has been fascinated with birds and flight for much of its recorded history — our myths, such as about Daedalus (whose name meant “cunningly wrought”) and his son Icarus, have been cautionary tales about our capacity for both building and breaking, and for hope and hubris.
Daedalus, a genius “maker”, was imprisoned for knowing too much. He built a giant labyrinth — as a containment facility for a half-man/half-beast Minotaur — but Daedalus could “hack” his own work to escape it. His reward was imprisonment at great heights inside of a tower. But he came up with a new solution for this new puzzle: build wings and fly away like a bird.
Taking his son Icarus along, they almost made it out but Icarus, captivated by his father’s flight tech, flew too close to the sun and his gear fell apart, killing him. The history of flight in recorded history would mirror Icarus for centuries. Building and breaking, hope and hubris — this has been the cycle for all progress including flight.
Other myths included King Kai Kawus of Persia, c. 1500 B.C., known as “the Foolish King” for his “Chariot” carried by four eagles — the legend was that the chariot crash-landed in China after the eagles grew tired. (Image from a Persian manuscript dated 1587–88 A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)
Everywhere in the ancient world, many others would try, none fly (for very long at best) and most die. Despite every failure, however, we kept dreaming of higher, farther & faster. The temptations of nature and small miraculous toys, however, have driven many sons of Daedalus to beg for gravity’s mercy.
Leonardo da Vinci’s fascination with flight, his sketches, and toys, as recorded in his Codex on the Flight of Birds (c. 1505, this link takes you to a copy of it), revealed study, mimicry, fantasy and creativity. There were designs with wings like bats but also out-of-the box ideas, beyond “being like a bird” designs, in the form of mechanically driven wings and proto-helicopters.
Others would imagine other ideas such as Roger Bacon, an English monk and academic, whose “De mirabili potestae artis et naturae” (c. 1250 but not published until 1542) proposed hollow copper spheres filled with “aetherial air”. He almost got the idea of using lighter than “air” gases right. But it would be others who learned to heat up ordinary air first and fill giant cloth bags — hydrogen and helium would not come for centuries yet. (There is a 1000 years’ worth of these ideas.)
We have a deep envy of birds, a love for reaching for the stars but we also tend to fight a lot. In addition to our bird-mimicry we added bomb-making. Gunpowder has been front-and-center for a millennia of bird-envy, dreams of the great beyond and battles.
Fireworks traveled an arc of festivity, flight and fighting. We just can’t seem to help it. The earliest known uses were in the 9th Century, during the Tang Dynasty in China, for celebration and spiritual reasons. Eventually, however, people went from warding off evil spirits to warding off enemies of the State. Unsurprisingly, the manufacture and handling of gunpowder would soon after become regulated. The “Fire Dragon Manual”, the “Huolongjing”, a 13th Century firearms treatise outlined the development and use of “fire arrows” - the first rockets and rocket weapons.
(The oldest known depiction of “fire arrows”, or rockets from the Huolongjing.)
In addition to the fighting of course, there were dreams of flying — right to the stars. Just one more myth to share, credited to China.
Just as there was a Persian tale about a foolhardy flyer, there was also a story, whose provenance is uncertain but repeated often, about a public official who built a rocket craft to travel to space. Upon his maiden test flight, there was an explosion and the disappearance of the world’s first would be astronaut.
Fast-forward 8 centuries: early hybrid applications of balloons and gunpowder were dark and dangerous, much like the Minotaur.
Balloons were also co-opted for war. In 1849 Austria conducted the world’s first aerial bombing — with Florence targeted as punishment for its defiance of Austrian rule. (Florence after 1000 years had been conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who then handed it over to Austria. By 1848 revolutions were happening all over Europe and the Florentines had no love for Vienna.) Austria retaliated with blockades but failed with artillery, which then led to an Austrian high-tech weapon.
(Depiction of Austrian balloon bombs used against Florence in 1849.)
Despite a long history of failure and pivots to weaponizing, the dream of flying without fancy gases or fireworks persisted, although I wanted to share just one more example of an idea that was literally depending on hot air, or steam in this case: William S. Henson’s “Aerial Steam Carriage” — genuine historical steampunk.
“The aerial steam carriage, also named Ariel, was a flying machine patented in 1842 that was supposed to carry passengers into the air. It was, in practice, incapable of flight since it had insufficient power from its heavy steam engine to fly.
A more successful model was built in 1848 which was able to fly for small distances within a hangar. The aerial steam carriage was significant because it was a transition from glider experimentation to powered flight experimentation.”
(Aerial Steam Carriage, 1840s. Powered flight was the way but steam-power wasn’t it.)
Two late 19th century sons of Daedalus were among those who made it happen: Kitty Hawk. December 17, 1903.
(Image of the original 1903 ‘Kitty Hawk’ aeroplane, National Archives)
After the flights, the brothers walked back to Kitty Hawk, where they sent a telegram from the Weather Bureau office to their father informing him of their success.
Kitty Hawk is usually credited as the site of the powered flights because it was the nearest named settlement at the time of the flight; the modern town of Kill Devil Hills did not exist until 50 years after the flights.
The Wrights chose the area because its frequent winds and soft sandy surfaces were suitable for their glider experiments, which they conducted over a three-year period prior to making the powered flights.”
Not even a decade would pass before man’s penchant for weaponizing would birth the first age of fighter planes, as had happened with balloons and gunpowder. Italy would use the miraculous new tech of powered flight for the world’s first airplane-based bombing on November 1, 1911 against the Turks in Tripoli during the Italo-Turkish War. As we all know the skies over Europe would be filled swarms of fighter planes and the latest iteration of balloons, dirigibles, in the “Great War”.
What is coming up, after a century-plus of powered flight? The same thing that took place before “Kitty Hawk”: Tests and “Toys”.
Some scenes from our near-future:
A model plane without moving parts that makes the air move around it in powered flight… 60 meters, or just under 200 feet. The first Wright Brothers test flight at Kitty Hawk was 120 feet, followed by 3 more tests — with the record at 859 feet in 59 seconds. Now we take transcontinental non-stop for granted. Odysseys are built on baby steps.
A plane whose “moving parts” were the air itself may become the latest flying fantasy.
We will have company of our making too. Imagine animated machines made for zero-gravity work and life, designed by makers who know only of gravity. Earth is for the birds.
Confused by this initial view? What does some robotic goo have to do with flight?
Consider what happens with this “Flux” prototype in flight and maybe in space.
Meanwhile, more familiar projects, well beyond the “toy” stage but still a “rich man’s plaything” are also natural developments for a life far outside the confines of air. Money flies and it always has — Da Vinci needed his patrons, as did every other Child of Daedalus. And even then, some will fall back to Earth as we reach beyond the Sun.
Final words. Remember our tendencies. I hope as we leave behind Earth’s clingy gravity (at last!), we also leave behind some of our more darker inventive talents.
Originally published at thebigstack.substack.com.