Pioneers of Flight: Ancient Greece
There has been considerable debate about which came first, hang gliders or sailplanes, and whether there is any meaningful connection between Otto Lilienthalís experiments in the 19th Century and modern foot-launched aircraft. This debate misses the point, for itís clear from the historical record that priority belongs to the Ancient Greeks. The first winged aircraft were the two wax and feather gliders Daedaleus and Icarus used for their epic 70-mile flight from Crete to the Greek mainland around 1500 BCE. Some people might object that this flight is merely a legend, but responsible members of society will reject their apolytheist agenda. The story of Daedaleus and Icarus is an established part of Ancient Greek Scripture, while the wild allegation that Lilienthal was first to fly is merely an unproven theory, which must be compared with competing explanations such as Scientific Icarism.
It appears, from the sparse information that survives, that these aircraft had excellent performance. A glide of 70 miles from a launch elevation of 1000 feet works out to a glider ratio of 397:1, which compares quite favorably with the 50:1 glide of a modern sailplane. Stability and control do not seem to have been a problem, for it appears that two unskilled pilots were able to operate these aircraft with no previous instruction. Operational issues are more difficult to evaluate. There is no record of setup time, but it is safe to assume that it must have been a struggle to insert all those feathers. It also appears that one aircraft may have been lost due to structural issues, though it's possible that pilot error may have been involved.
What most people don't realize is that the legend of Daedelus and Icarusís flight is only a small part of a much larger story.
Daedelus was what today we would call an engineer. Indeed, he might have been the first recognizable engineer in all of classical mythology. There weren't many career opportunities for engineers back then, so after failing to find work on the mainland, Daedelus went to work for a fellow named Minos, king of the island of Crete.
At that time, Crete was the center of a sophisticated sea-faring civilization that is now known, not surprisingly, as the Minoan Civilization. This gave King Minos a monopoly on trade in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, placing him in a position not unlike that of Bill Gates today. ("Your galley may be sinking improperly. To run WhipSlave on your oarsmen, press any key." etc.) Like most ultra-rich people throughout history, King Minos was a trifle odd. One of the first things he did was order Daedelus to design a maze from which no one could escape. No one is quite sure why he did this. If you were the CEO of a gigantic software firm and had just hired a new senior engineer to lead your development effort, would you immediately order the fellow to build an impenetrable maze? Perhaps you would. Perhaps thatís where Windows came from, which suggests that the analogy between Minos and Gates is closer than we realize. Daedelus, who knew when to say Ďyesí to upper management, obliged his employer by designing the Labyrinth. For many years, things went well, and one imagines releases of Labyrinth NT, Labyrinth 98, Labyrinth 2000, Labyrinth ME, Labyrinth XP, and Labyrinth Vista, until matter of the Minotaur arose.
Most people have heard of the Minotaur -- that strange creature, half-man and half-bull, that has been a staple feature of any number of very bad movies. Few pause to wonder where the Minotaur came from. This may be just as well, for it involves an element of Greek mythology that is unlikely ever to be taught in the American public school system. It appears that King Minos had a deal with Poseidon, God of The Sea. This was the usual bargain with the gods, not unlike the way lobbyists work today -- Poseidon would steer favors Minos's way, similar to Haliburton contracts under the Bush Administration, while Minos was supposed to offer his very best bull to Poseidon every spring in return, something like modern campaign financing. One year, the bull was so nice that Minos decided to keep it for himself. "Poseidon won't mind if I just sacrifice my second-best bull this year," Minos must have thought. "Why, I doubt he'll even notice!"
It is never a good idea to piss off The Gods and like most Eastern Mediterranean gods -- Zeus, Yaweh, Jehovah, Allah, and their ilk -- Poseidon was not the sort of deity to take such things lightly. You'd think that all this "For I am a jealous god!" business would get old after a few thousand years, but like petulant bureaucrats, they're always running around zapping their worshippers for perceived infractions of The Rules. A strong argument for Buddhism, perhaps, but unfortunately for Minos, this option wouldnít be available for another millennium.
Poseidon was quite imaginative when it came to revenge. And like most Eastern Mediterranean dieties (see Zeus, Yaweh, Jehovah, and Allah above), he seems to have had a thing about female sexuality, so instead of zapping Minos with an earthquake (his specialty) or a volcanic explosion, such was the one in 1200 BCE that destroyed the island of Thera and wiped out the entire Minoan Civilization, he decided to take revenge indirectly through Minos's wife, Pasiphae.
Like her husband, Pasiphae seems to have been a wee bit strange, so it probably wasn't hard for Poseidon to make her take the next step and conceive what is euphemisticly referred to in Grave's Mythology as an 'unnatural lust' for the bull Minos had promised to sacrifice. And like most people who get filled with an 'unnatural lust' for a sacrificial bull, she instinctively made a beeline for the nearest engineer. Daedelus seems to have regarded the matter as an interesting technical challenge. How to get Mrs Minos and the bull together without the smaller partner getting squished? He solved this by building a hollow statue of a cow in which the unfortunate woman could conceal herself while... taste forbids discussion of the details, but there may be a lesson here. If youíre supposed to sacrifice a large male farm animal to a god, you decide to renege on the deal, and you happen to have an attractive wife, do not, repeat do not, keep that large male farm animal hanging around the palace! It can only lead to tears...
Needless to say, Minos was annoyed when he learned what was going on. Which he did nine months later when Pasiphae gave birth to a bouncing baby Minotaur. After some thought, he decided to hide the Minotaur in the Labyrinth to avoid scandal, to get it out of the way, and because this must have seemed like an awfully neat idea. After all, here he had this Minotaur he wanted to get rid of and heck, that Labyrinth was just sitting there, crying out to be used for something. Itís not recorded what became of Pasiphae, but one assumes she became a brief media sensation.
There remained the matter of Daedelus. Minos could have ordered him killed, but engineers were hard to come by, and if youíre a wealthy CEO of a large corporation, you never know when you might need another Labyrinth or exotic marital aid, so he imprisoned Daedelus and his son Icarus in a tower. (Some versions of the legend suggest that he imprisoned them in the Labyrinth, but that seems unlikely, because as we all know, it's always a Bad Idea to imprison the mad scientist where he'll have access to the monster.) Daedelus decided to escape, as would you, if you happened to be imprisoned a tower on a remote Greek island controlled by a paranoid billionaire and his eccentric young wife! This decision was followed by a number of lurid incidents involving ants, honey, and visits from various goddesses, but after these were finally over Daedelus and his son were proud possessors of a pair of wax wings covered with feathers.
They waited for a good day, launched, and tried to fly across the ocean to Greece. This wasn't too unreasonable a plan because Eastern Mediterranean is warm, and can be a good source of thermals. Daedelus made it all the way, setting an Aegean Open Distance Record that stands to this day. Icarus went down en route. According to the legend, he flew too close to the Sun and his wings melted, but I've always had my doubts about that part of the story. This was a healthy young man, after all, flying low over warm sandy beaches and beautiful island girls. Perhaps he decided to land a bit early...
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Last modified: 25 September 2009