The fall of Icarus, circa 1635.

Dreams of Human-Powered Flight: The Myth of Daedalus

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In ancient Roman times, the story was a favorite subject for artists. They illustrated the tragic myth on carved precious gems, reliefs on molded clay lamps, in bronze figurines, and painted frescoes. A large group of Roman cameos and glass gems contain scenes from the myth. Several beautiful murals preserved in the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum capture the moment of Icarus's death, with a sorrowful Daedalus hovering high above Icarus's broken body on a beach.

"The Fall of Icarus," 17th century relief. (Public Doman)

"The Fall of Icarus," 17th century relief. (Public Doman)

The way that the myth merges optimism and despair made it a popular allegorical subject for artists in the Middle Ages. The story of Daedalus and Icarus has become a cliché today but it is easy to appreciate how it once expressed hopes for man-made technology to augment mere human capabilities. The myth warns that the risks of exceeding human bounds can exact a high price. Icarus did not survive the experiment, so his hopes were dashed by hubris, and unanticipated consequences.

Magnificent Man and Their Flying Machines

Nevertheless, the dream of somehow flying like birds high above Earth did not die with Icarus. After all, Daedalus and Icarus did take off and they were able to fly with their fabricated bird wings. And despite the high cost of his innovation, at least Daedalus survived the flight to Sicily and he continued to invent marvels. In the second century AD, the writer Lucian of Samosata, sometimes called the first science fiction novelist, wrote a story titled "Icaro-Menippus or The Sky Man." In his popular tale, a philosopher named Menippus emulates Daedalus and makes himself a pair of wings to fly up to the Moon. Peering down on Earth, Menippus sees that human beings appear to be tiny ants rushing about. In other ancient works, such as Aristophanes' comic plays, in Aesop's fables, and in ancient Persian legends, characters hitch rides on giant insects and cling to birds to experience flight.

A memorable flying "machine" was described in the Alexander Romance legends, a collection of traditions that arose about Alexander the Great after his death (fourth century BC to sixth century AD). In one legend, Alexander is consumed by the desire to explore the great unknown—the Heavens. Alexander harnesses the power of birds to allow him to fly high above Earth. The story was wildly popular in the Middle Ages. Pictures of Alexander "piloting" his fabulous flying machine appear in literally hundreds of illustrations in manuscripts, mosaics, sculptures, and tapestries from about AD 1000 to 1600. In the legend, Alexander's flying machine was powered by two huge vultures, or in some versions, four winged Griffins. The vultures or Griffins were encouraged to fly higher and higher as they tried to reach hunks of meat that Alexander in his cockpit dangled on poles above them. The fantasy idea plays on the old folklore theme goading a donkey onward using a carrot on a stick. As Alexander flies higher, the air becomes colder and colder. In this interesting detail about lower temperatures at high altitudes, this later legend differs from the archaic Greek myth in which the heat of the sun's rays intensify as Icarus rises in the sky.

Sascha Schneider, "Icarus" (1906) (Public Domain)

Sascha Schneider, "Icarus" (1906) (Public Domain)

Alexander gazes down at the Earth, which now resembles a small ball resting in the blue bowl of the oceans, seemingly insignificant compared to the vastness of the Heavens. This story expresses Alexander's many different wishes to surpass the limits of human capacities, seeking knowledge "beyond the world." At last, satisfied with his bird's-eye perspective from the stratosphere, Alexander returns to Earth.

Lessons of Morality

As with the fall of Icarus, a "moral" was often attached to the medieval Romance traditions. This tale of Alexander's flying machine supposedly cautions men against the hubris or arrogance of seeking to overreach human limits. But in fact, the excitement and sheer audacity of Alexander's space adventure—to go where no human had gone before—overpowers such a message. And again, despite the great risks, this bold explorer lives to tell the tale, much like Daedalus in the Greek myth.

Icarus and Daedalus modern sculpture, Aghia Galini, Crete. (Public Domain)

Icarus and Daedalus modern sculpture, Aghia Galini, Crete. (Public Domain)

The experiments by Daedalus and Alexander reflect the age-old fascination with technology's potentials, envisioned in early myth, legend, and folklore, to surpass human boundaries with audacious inventions and optimistic derring-do.

Icarus and Daedalus, by Charles Paul Landon, 1799. (Public Domain)

Icarus and Daedalus, by Charles Paul Landon, 1799. (Public Domain)

In the Daedalus myth, the "impossible" human-powered flight involved simply imitating birds. Daedalus and Icarus flew by flapping feathered wings that were attached to their backs and arms. Notably, in about 1500 the great thinker and inventor Leonardo da Vinci created designs for human-powered ornithopters, mechanical wing-flapping devices modeled on feathered bird and membraned bat wings. The drawings exist but there is no evidence of any test flights.


Enjoyed reading this article. Info on feasibility:
1. Construction: a hand glider could have been built with materials and construction methods known at this time, within twice the all up weight of a modern-day hand glider (e.g. technical viable).
Icarus is credited with inventing the sail. Flax linen was imported from Egypt by Minos/Crete, they had the best spinners and weavers in the world and exported fine cloth (take a look at the quality and complexity of lady’s fashion garments). Early 20th century aircraft used aero-linen, it has a similar tensile strength to weight ratio as e-glass used in composites, today.
A linen sailcloth could be protected from seawater using wax to improve longevity and performance, that may be the underlying story.
If I had to build a glider from natural materials only, I'd use thick bamboo as tubing for a simple delta wing airframe with aero linen skin, a pilot shifting their weight for control authority, keep it simple.
Giant reeds (similar to bamboo) grow around the Med, used for flute making from 3000 BCE. Bundles of intertwined wicker (used in Minoan/Carian figure of eight shields) would also work. Natural materials are excellent and light.
By example Minoan furniture construction was as good as Chippendale with similarly exacting joinery (Thira tripod table, Egyptian folding beds accredited to Daedalus), that may have employed steaming for shaping (steam rooms in Palaces of Minoan construction recorded in the literature, they may have been used for pleasure and possible for a practical purpose also to shape wood). Constructing water-tight ship hulls with reinforced stitching and pitch (reduced tar from tree sap resin) known. They had all the technical skills and materials to hand to build a basic very lightweight hand glider from natural materials. The question is did they have a design?
2. Design: a) consider Sir George Cayley governable parachute, undertook from a standing start. He got most things right from educated guesses (1802 design) and in later life re-engaging with the topic and demonstrating the idea in practice, steady level flight (in this case). Cayley was wealthy, but did not have access to Minoan Palace workshops or yards! By pursuing this goal he also reinvents the wheel to keep weight down, the spoke tension wheel from twine. To demonstrate gliding flight you don’t need something this sophisticated: spoked wheels, gondola, tail stabilisers/control surfaces and all ! Minoan craftspeople could have built this airframe easily incidentally. The chambered (lifting) wing is apparent if you try to drape a taught cloth over a frame and apply an angle of attack (through weight shift) increasing lift (more distance forwards with a reduced sink rate) at lose of airspeed, you find an equilibrium. You do not need a sophisticated design for basic flight. Gliding is the art of balance, weight shift gives control. It is how all the early pioneers achieved control in flight.
b) You don’t go from an idea to flight straight away, you build models and see what works out in practice. As McCready said, ‘there is nothing wrong with models’. You can build them quickly and show it to a war chief. Support is offered from the State if it works or is interesting, once you have a viable flight concept or design IN-HAND, take my word for it.
If you look there are working examples of a fixed-wing gliders based upon the bird found in Egyptian tombs. Whatever your model demonstrates you can then consider scaling it up, the unknown, and risk your life and limb! You don’t jump off a cliff straight away! You start on the side of a gentle hill, a little glide, tweak. Once you gain confidence, you then undertake longer runs from ever increased gradients, you learn basic control of the aircraft. What would be unexpected is taking off into the sun, you enjoy both lea lift (wind rolling over the peak/hill) and rising columns of air (thermals)!
c). Oral and written accounts.
i) Chinese: Basic planforms for flight surfaces possibly described, known to the adepts, suggest an awareness of landscape from altitude and long distance travel by gliding flight.
Later attempts by the state to reproduce this are not much more than the forced attachment of prisons to Kites (execution).
ii) Abbas ibn Firnas, Moorish Polymath from Spain, C. 850 AD. Oral accounts: controlled flight on the second attempt.
iii) Elmer of Malmesbury - the flying monk, ‘Lightening' shot from Dyson design centre. Picking up the original story, the stained glass window would suggest a bat like wing design. In any event, one in three ‘sink ratio’: poor. I don’t think the abbot had much to do with curtailing the technical demonstration. Further, the pilot reports tail control needed after jumping off the abbey tower, result: broken legs, useful experience and historical flight data; from eyewitnesses accounts, the glide distance a furlong, the tower height known.
My interpretation is that an unsupported wing was employed, bad idea! A dihedral ‘v’ wing from front elevation will quickly follow, the arm cannot easily support the wing loading (half your weight on each arm outstretched, for much beyond a minute). A fixed wing is needed, building an unsupported wing mounted to arms will quickly show that this is unlikely to yield good results. There will be a need to sweep back your wings to balance your weight upon air also (tail stabilisers recorded, as being required for this configuration). You quickly understand flight when you see what happens in practice, best to start with models until you do.
Elmer was inspired by the historical literature that attempted to understand the account of Daedalus. It relied upon the ancient oral account passed sown over many generations and getting more hazy with each, a lack of understanding of flight physics and the artists interpretation of the event, basically; birds have wings and fly, therefore Daedalus and Icarus must have used feathered wings to fly. Question: did a Minoan ship look like a whale to move bulks or precious things over the ocean? They used the bits they needed: a hull, human-powered oars/paddles to go places rather than a flipper.
3 Human Powered Flight. Bird muscle around the wing (75%), leg muscles weak even for hunting birds, like Owls (use locking talons to grip pray), eagles or hawks. Human strength is in the leg. Leonardo did show this in initial designs, reporting limited flight success upon the lake, pilot (one of his entourage) injured. An Olympic cyclist produces around 350 watts of work (basically the power of a battery powered drill). When you consider this must lift the airframe and body weight before making progress forward, humans by themselves are not going to get places quickly in flight under their own power, the surplus power forwards after lifting weight is walking speed (you need a tail wind if you want to go faster). McCready son peddled hard to get across the channel.
4. Daedalus flight comments. A) could be referring to the sail. B) Some accounts say flight northeast, not west over huge 500km+ distances over the sea, the later only viable by sail in my opinion. A glider is reliant upon thermals to obtain altitude, from a sun lite hillside. There are not any significant thermals at sea, it is substantially flat. Before anyone comments, you do get some lea lift from wind waves derived from land mass. The glide ratio for a modern-day sailplane is around 60:1 (horizontal distance traversed to sink rate), for a basic trainer glider 30:1 and these are good aerodynamic airframes with high aspect ratio wings. I’m guessing but for a hand glider maybe 10.1. The nearest island north of Crete is 100kms away. You need 10kms of altitude to go anywhere in still winds (at this altitude you need oxygen, did Icarus become unconscious). For an experimental airframe, it is more likely the pilot lost control, for example, the aircraft going nose down and could not be recovered by weight shift (you need to keep weight as low as possible for a design that will natural recover when buffeted). There are smaller islands 25-40kms to east or west of Crete that could be used for island hopping, realising altitude before gliding to the next (2.5 - 4 kms altitude is manageable without oxygen). Tailwinds could be used to go further. It is also worth noting where Icarus had a mishap, Ikaria, they could have been heading for Troy! If Daedalus and Icarus wanted to travel, Minos would not want to lose two of the Palaces master craftsman to a trading rival and may explain the context of the story. Also, wind direction in the Cyclades is very sessional, it should be possible to approximate the month/season then they attempted long distance flight.
5. Daedalus could be a position in society, there are simply too many inventions, art and engineering projects for a single person to complete in a lifetime and in the case of Palaces built on the mainland and art at completely different times. Also consider that an object crafted by the master was worth much more than one that was not. The consistent quality of Minoan artefacts and understanding of science and practical engineering suggests a learned society or at least an apprentice programme in Palace workshops, more probably both.
Notes: as is emerging, Minos had the basic building blocks in place that were accredited to Greece, Roman and British empire millennium later (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) but at a lower manufacturing readiness/widespread adoption, but in other respects were arguably better. By example: Communal sewers, hot and cold running water to buildings, hypocaust, aqueducts, roads, instruments of contract/global exchange/trade, central banking and a planned economy, MINT quality engraving, moveable type, architecture that managed light, air, heat and fluids, etc, all demonstrated, C.2000BCE. The state of the ART, all the best ideas and commodities moved through their trading network: trigonometry/geometry/mathematics, metrology, astronomy, metallurgy (the money of it’s time) and construction materials that they converted into high-value trade goods, anything that came on their radar that was of interest, they sent an embassy/ship to investigate and secure knowledge and supply. In many respects, the Minoan empire was comparable to the technical achievements of Britain in 1800 AD when Cayley came up with the idea! This society was also top of its game in every respect. Oddly Minoan DNA has British DNA origin, you can’t produce bronze without tin which we had in abundance.
Minoans had the technical skill to build a basic glider and importantly an inquisitive mindset. Anyone that can work out how to thread a shell using an ant and honey (genius) would be able to build a basic aircraft. Not sure? Well I have no formal training in aerodynamics and have built and demonstrated a new class of aircraft. I did the same thing, ask the warchief for the resource and you can get it up in the air, this would take about 3 years to build from a standing start possible less if you had unfettered access to Palace workshops. My gut feeling is they build it, how successful it was is anyone’s guess, a leg from Crete to Thera is tricky, you’d need a good tailwind, I’d go East first! Someone could have a go…. It would be a great prize challenge for the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) human flight group to issue! Crete to Troy using natural materials available to the Minoans. Then we’d know…. My money is with the aircraft builders.
The administrators of the site have my permission to post this as an article if they have the inclination, just credit the source.
PS The winged feet reference may be referring to stabilisers the flying monk needed. Thinking a little more about this, it suggests a more complex design and I would go with a fixed elliptical (in plan) wing made from wicker, technically a good shape and easy to make. I’d create a X support (in plan view) below for the pilot, mounting to the leading to trailing edge of the wing, U in side or front view. All the rigid frame structures I’d use wicker (forgiving on ground impact – used in balloons baskets that have to absorb a lot of impact energy). An aero linen skin over the wings, that I’d staple stitch at the leading and trailing edges of the wicker frame. Incidentally, this is exactly how they constructed lightweight full body length shields! They will have studied bird wings and noted they were chambered, a few hand launch models and you have a good profile, a basic lifting aerofoil. Wicker chambered rib bracers could be employed from leading to trailing edge of the wing without adding much weight – you’ve already got a better airframe than Cayley, easier to construct too! The wing needs to be pretty big, without doing the calculations, I’d hazard a guess of 1.2m chord length by 6m span. You could use a strap from the trailing edge of the wing to support the pilot at their waist/possibly upper leg, they move about the X frame, the Centre of gravity is directly below the wing which is exactly where you want it. At this size you’d need to extend the mounting position of tail stabilisers backwards beyond the foot. Your article suggests to me they used paddles extended beyond the foot, a wooden pole strapped to the leg with a wicker loop either side of each foot and skinned in linen (flat plate). This configuration is good as you can use both weight shift with foot paddles as control surfaces (actually just like a bird). I’d upgrade the minimum glide angle to 20:1 for this configuration possible more if you increased the wingspan. This configuration doesn’t allow you to run down a hill for launch, you’d probably need a ground crew or a wheeled trolley (lots of examples of this in Minoan artefacts, it is no more complex than a kids cart and rolls down the hill to give you speed to lift into the air). Skid landing would be a bit hairy, the wicker would held but I’d ditch in the sea near to a beach. BTW Leonardo did leave some notes that suggested he build a glider and launched it from a hill, ditching on a lake. He also produced hand launch models of the helicopter, aerial screw, seen over the Vatican wall when he was completing a commission, the section at the bottom of the drawing is the release mechanism it was copied from Chinese bamboo spinner blade toys.
The wicker is definitely the best option, you need something resilient when undertaking initial airwork or this will take you much longer to develop experimentally, having to rebuild wings would set you back a month or two. Someone needs to give this a try.
Also, the association between Priestess and axe and square is interesting. Axes are long distance signalling devices and angular measurement tools (the smaller ones used for navigation). The square is associated with architects as in [System] Architect (builder). The priestess were keepers of knowledge (mostly astronomy, practitioners of Pythagorean mathematics to predict the position of celestial bodies and stars, the axe gives you accurate positioning of the sun from the shadow and reflection without having to look directly into the sun) possibly teachers. They worked at peak sanctuaries, studying the stars at night and I suspect monitoring the shipping lanes in the day (which they had a commanding view over, there are peak sanctuaries at west, east and central Crete, there is line of sight between them and across the entire island – around 100kms to the horizon for monitoring coast approaches too), they could use the big axe mirrors to signal the fleet to intercept ships of the wrong sail/colour and secure their cargo (they completely dominated trade in the region). Sorry for long post, but your article is thought-provoking and this is an interesting topic, well written too. It now makes much more sense why the messengers like Hermes had winged feet (stabilisers: a Minoan state secret?). The priestesses had line of sight to other peak sanctuaries on other islands – huge distances (there is also iconography showing runners actually running down hills to delivering messages to administration centres – Palaces, actually there are even symbols in the Cretan Hieroglyphics for this), it’s a patchy network, you don’t have line of sight to all islands and this is limited to only some islands in the Cyclades group, the trade network is much bigger and if you want to send messages the glider described is much faster than a ship (about 10 times so, possible more with a good tail wind)! This might explain the iconography you describe. You would not want this technology to get in to the hands of a competitor, it would be a state secret but you could not stop others from observing this in flight and once they did it is such a huge thing it is no surprise that it was passed down in oral history. It does explain why Minos did not want Daedalus going to Troy.

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