“They go up diddley up-up, they go down diddley down-down …” So goes the classic song from the 1965 flim “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” a comedy about a fictional 1910 aviation contest to fly from London to Paris.
The early inventors and aviators who dreamed that people could fly made many painful mistakes, but their vision, perseverance and faith — a lot of faith, really — led in time to modern aircraft and the aerospace technologies that have opened up the skies for exploration. Here are 8 of the wackiest flying machines from the very earliest days of aviation, most of which were actually able to get off the ground, at least briefly — unlike the elegant, but flightless, French “Marquis’ Multiplane” of 1908, shown above.
Chinese war kite, 500 B.C.
Kites large enough to carry a man were first used in China thousands of years ago, mainly for military observation and sometimes as a punishment for errant soldiers or prisoners. The Chinese general Kung Shu-Pan, a contemporary of Confucius in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., is recorded as having “himself made an ascent riding on a wooden kite in order to spy on a city which he desired to capture.” The kite was shaped like a bird, and could stay aloft for three days and three nights.
In 1282, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo described how authorities at a seaport would strap an unwilling victim onto a large rectangular kite, and send him aloft to determine the wind direction (a bit like a weather vane) and the best time for ships to set sail.
Kites continued to be used for military observation at different times and places right up to the time of the earliest balloons and airships. Powerful lifting kites were used as a fairground attraction developed by the Wild West showman and aviation pioneer Samuel Franklin Cody, including very large bat-winged box kites that could lift several people in a gondola to altitudes of several thousand feet.
Observation kites were also used by the British in the Boer War in South Africa in the 1890s. The British used several war kites designed by Cody from 1906 until they were replaced by observation balloons and aircraft during World War I.
Clockwork Flying Dragon, 1647
The Italian inventor and early scientist Tito Burattini demonstrated a flying model glider that he called the “Dragon Volant” (Flying Dragon) at the court of the King of Poland in Warsaw in 1647. From contemporary descriptions and later drawings of device, such as the one shown above, it may have been made from cloth or paper stretched over a wooden frame, with four flapping wings driven by springs.
In 1648, Burattini launched the Dragon Volant once more, this time with a cat aboard, for a brief but surely turbulent gliding flight, thereby establishing a tradition followed by the animal astronauts of the American and Russian space programs in the 20th century.
It’s reported that Burattini was unable to convince the king to finance a full-sized version of the Dragon Volant, large enough to carry himself, but he was certain that “only the most minor difficulties” would be involved in landing his mechanical dragon if he could get off the ground.
Emergency parachute, 1783
Several inventors seized on the idea of a parachute long before anyone ever got one to work, including Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century, who drew a pyramid-shaped parachute that he described as “a tent made of linen of which the openings all stopped up … [a man] will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.”
In 1595, the Croatian inventor Fausto Veranzio published a design for the Homo Volans, or “Flying Man,” a parachute based on a ship’s sail, with material stretched across a square wooden frame with ropes.
History does not record all the painful flight experiments that must have followed, but on Dec. 26, 1783, the French inventor and scientist Louis-Sébastien Lenormand made what is considered to be the first successful decent by parachute, from the tower of the Montpellier observatory, shown in this 19th-century illustration.
Lenormand thought his invention could be used in an emergency to escape from the upper floors of buildings in case of a fire, and for his public test flight, he descended safely from a height of about 82 feet (25 meters) using a parachute measuring 14 feet (4.3 m) across, with a wooden frame of spokes like an umbrella, covered with silk.
The crowd in front of the observatory for the demonstration included the balloonist Joseph Montgolfier, who had pioneered the first manned air balloon flights with his brother Etienne just a few months earlier in the same year.
Otto ornithopter, 1894
Many early flight pioneers looked to birds for inspiration, and reasoned that since birds flap their wings when they fly, then the same technique might work for human flight. Leonardo Da Vinci drew a design for a mechanical wing in the early 15th century, and many designs for what became known as ornithopters — aircraft that flap their wings — were proposed in the 18th and 19th centuries. One inventor in France in the early 1800s reportedly used an ornithopter attached to a small hydrogen balloon to make small hops.
This image from 1894 shows the German aviator Otto Lelienthal with his human-powered ornithopter.
Lelienthal had become famous in Germany after making a series of successful early glider flights, and he hoped his muscle-driven “kleiner Schlagflügelapparat” (which translates to “little flapping apparatus”) would enable him to fly like a bird.
But he was killed in a crash while flying a fixed-wing glider in 1896, before he could complete the development of his ornithopter design.
Today, scientists recognize that the way birds use their wings to fly depends on a highly evolved lightweight physiology and flying senses that let them control their wing shape and surface texture, and finely adapt it to efficiently produce the lift they need at any moment.
Some scientists are now studying how the brains of birds, bats and insects can handle such complex information about flight with only small brains, and hope that such “bio-inspired” research can teach them.
Cornu helicopter 1907
French flight pioneer and bicycle maker Paul Cornu made the first free helicopter flight in this remarkable contraption on Nov. 9 1907. The primitive helicopter has two rotors mounted one in front of the other, and the pilot sat between the rotors, with the 24-horsepower petrol engine between his knees.
Steerable control vanes were included under the rotors, but they didn’t seem to work, and the pilot steered mainly by rocking the helicopter from side to side, and moving the nose up and down.
The first flights were made with the helicopter tethered to the ground, but in time Cornu was able to make several free-flying hops of up to 6 feet (2 m) in height, and only long enough to learn that the machine was almost uncontrollable.
Cornu abandoned working on his prototype helicopter soon after those first experimental flights, and eventually returned to making bicycles for a living.