Monday, September 22, 2008

Flying with eagles

It's not always easy to maintain that an individual named X invented, in the year Y, a phenomenon to be known as Z. In this respect, I draw the attention of readers to an interesting exchange of views on hang-gliding history that has been taking place, over the last few days, through comments attached to the following two posts:

Inventor of the hang glider [display]

Australian inventor of hang glider on French TV [display]

Such conflicts are inevitable, if not constructive, since nothing is clear-cut in the case of such a profound human endeavor as the desire to fly like Icarus. Does such-and-such a prototype deserve to be labeled an "invention" even if it didn't actually work ideally, or didn't even work at all? For those who reply yes, then the inventor of free flight (French wording) was surely the German Otto Lilienthal [1848-1896], photographed here a week before a mortal crash:

Certain observers contend that a historical prototype only merits the designation "invention" if it was a direct precursor of a popular modern device. Such critics are wading through historical quicksand, since their alleged "inventions" are appearing and disappearing at the same speed as current progress in technology and marketing. This is particularly true in a domain that is considerably more familiar to me, personally, than hang gliders. I'm referring to computers. Maybe certain naive folk would be happy if today's history books were to claim, say, that Bill Gates invented the computer! It goes without saying that I wouldn't agree with them.

Yesterday, I expressed my admiration of the aerial spectacle provided by the magnificent eagle Sherkan, his Swiss trainer Jacques-Olivier Travers and their French parapente pilot Laurent Cochard. Might it be said that this trio invented the concept of flying with eagles? No!

This engraving comes from an issue of the excellent magazine Scientific American (to which I subscribe today) dated 1865. A Baltimore inventor had sent in a letter to the editor suggesting the exploitation of a team of eagles as "a means of air transport that would be extremely simple and not costly". He calculated that, since a bird can carry up to 10 kg in its claws [legend of vicious eagles clutching lambs and children], only ten would be required to transport an adult passenger, enclosed (for safety?) in a metallic cage. The Baltimore fellow explained that a "system of ropes" could be manipulated like reins by the human passenger, obliging the eagles to orient their flight in any desired manner. American science in 1865!

Getting back to the case of my compatriot and friend John Dickenson, I've often dreamed that my birthplace of Grafton, inspired by Dickenson's delta-wing legacy, might get around to organizing an "overdrive" version of our archaic Jacaranda Festival. I now know that John, too, has had this same idea in the back of his mind. Unproductive squabbling about aeronautical history has thrown a spanner into the works, to the extent that the revisionists appear to have frightened Grafton authorities, who must think at times (wrongly, of course) that they're being duped by the Dickenson story.

I would dearly love to talk like the pope, and tell my fellow Graftonians that they should not be afraid to go forward bearing the banner of Dickenson. But the real problem is: What would be the ideal geographical location in Australia to organize a fabulous free-flight Aussie Icarus air show? And who would be prepared to invest in the launching of such an event?

1 comment:

  1. I suppose you heard about "FusionMan" - what a great experience! It is possible to watch his flight from Pas-de-Calais to Douvres on YouTube.