Ideas in the Air

A crowd gathers in the market square. A daredevil with wings strapped to his body is about to throw himself off the church tower. What hitherto had been the province of angels was about to become the territory of beings bound to the earth. Now they could reach for the stars.

            Picture the scene. People have walked for miles not only to buy the coming week’s provisions in the market, and not only to meet with old friends, but also to witness an event that might be a moment in history, an unforgettable scene. This was to be wondrous. It should have been so but for the force of gravity and the failure of an idea.

 It was showmanship spiced with real danger that made such a spectacle the more capable of drawing a large crowd. The English town of Pocklington continues to hold an annual Flying Man Festival to commemorate Thomas Pelling, a travelling showman who toured the country performing acrobatics. He visited Pocklington in 1733, attracting spectators to watch him as he attempted to fly from the church tower. The wings failed to open. He could not, as he had planned, float down safely. It may be he had performed this stunt before. This time he was not successful. Pelling landed disastrously in the town square. He died instantly. His memorial can be found on the church’s eastern wall. The disaster attracted great interest.

Unknown to many who gathered to watch, an ancient legend was being re-enacted, although the intention was different. The story of Icarus is powerful even in its familiarity. The boy with wings of his own making flew too near the sun, the heat melting the wax, and so causing Icarus to plunge down into the sea where he drowned. Of course the myth is a warning against trying too hard and attempting too much. We are not made to fly. There is grave danger for us in attempting to create for ourselves gifts with which we are not naturally endowed. Human beings are naturally earth-bound, yet they have imagined through the ages how it must be to leave the limitations of gravity and solid ground.

Icarus sought to escape from the labyrinth of the Minotaur. The showman sought a different kind of escape. The quest to be more than human is age-old. We seek to steal the secrets of the gods. It is human nature not to accept our condition. We constantly devise new ways of overcoming the limitations of not being able naturally to do certain things. We lift our hands to the sky and reach for the stars.

Children at night may wonder about the nature of the universe and the experience of voyaging through the stars. They will do so until they begin to feel strange. Disturbing thoughts on these matters, however, are not the exclusive property of children. Travelling in the Sahara, that remarkable traveller Bruce Chatwin wrote of the Bedouin who asked if there was, as had heard, a place called Merica? ‘And these Mericans, they have travelled to the moon?’ Yes. The Bedouin had no hesitation in making his distaste felt. ‘They are blasphemers,’ he said. We can hear the firmness of mind as he spoke.

We need to tread warily when we walk towards forbidden ground. Or when fruit falls at our feet temptingly. Yet caution makes us cowards in our caves. We dare not even consider the possibility of fire, although raw meat in a cold climate is not what we want. We need to gaze up at the stars and wonder how we might fly.

There is a flying machine in the town museum of Chard in Somerset. Half a century and more before the Wright brothers someone called Stringfellow got his machine in the air. That was in 1848. It was an age-old dream that the age of industry and invention had made achievable. Of course others followed Stringfellow’s example in seeking to build a working machine that could fly. If the progenitor’s name was soon obscured, his pioneering advance was not. It led eventually all the way to Kittyhawk.

Stringfellow, however, was not the first human being to achieve flight. Powered flight was his invention, but there were the balloonists of the previous century. And before Montgolfier in the Age of Reason’s scientific advance there was Leonardo in the creative world of the Renaissance. Leonardo sought to fly as a bird flies. The machine he proposed may or may not have left the ground. The evidence is not clear.  Observation, imagination and experiment were the watchwords of a Renaissance mind. The world, though, was not ready for such leaps of faith. It was an age of orthodoxy, with a deep suspicion of all that was outside the realms of tradition, convention and the agreed norms.

Leonardo’s machine was not the first, as you may have suspected, because there rarely is a definite first of anything. Inventions rarely arise spontaneously from one mind. There are ideas in the air waiting to be taken seriously.

Most of what we know of early aviation is myth and legend.  Little is known for certain. There is the legend of Oliver of Malmesbury who is said to have glided on wings in about 1050. That remarkable man of learning, Friar Roger Bacon, two centuries later considered the possibility of flight.  He suggested there might be constructed a globe filled with ‘ethereal air.’ Then he tantalizing goes further, but not far enough to satisfy our curiosity: ‘There is an instrument to fly with, which I never saw, nor know any man that hath seen it, but I full well know by name the learned man who invented the same.’  That may be a reference to Oliver of Malmesbury, but of this we cannot be certain. The reference is so cryptic, as if Bacon’s intention was to encompass his speculations with a sense of mystery.

Why should this be? To our minds, accustomed to speculations in all things, it makes no sense to conceal sources that might be used as evidence in the case we wish to make. Bacon was a philosopher schooled in Aristotelian logic, lecturing in Paris and Oxford, and gaining a great reputation for the depth of his discourse. Bacon was also a scientist before the word was known. He enquired into the physical nature of things. This was in an age when speculation and experiment carried within them the fear of devilry. To fly like an angel, was that not to trespass on the bounds of human capability? Was it not sorcery? That charge hung about Bacon for centuries. Robert Greene, a contemporary and rival of Shakespeare, depicts the doctor mirabilis in Faustian terms as one practised in the black arts. The charge of necromancy would have guaranteed condemnation and death. So there was a purpose in leaving matters vague. No-one could follow where there was no lead.

This may have impeded the development of Bacon’s speculations. Not until the Enlightenment did anyone dare to experiment with the idea of a balloon that could rise in the air. Once it had risen there was no limit to where the aeronautical imagination might go.

Leonardo’s Renaissance mind turned repeatedly to human flight. He devised such a machine, but there is no evidence that he made that Promethean leap of consciousness by actually constructing such a machine. It may be that he too felt the fear of not daring too much. It was a bold idea. To imagine flying was one thing. To fly was another.

In imagination human beings already had flown. Jason and the Argonauts is a familiar story. There are tales of flying in other cultures, including, of course, the flying carpets of The Arabian Nights. It seems to have been the dream of every culture. When human minds began to imagine among their first imaginings was surely the ability to fly. The sight of birds sailing through the air is to earth-bound beings a perennial fascination. We watch, we study and we long to spread our wings so that we might journey with ease and alacrity across the world.

The Montgolfier brothers in their balloon raised not one machine but the bounds of the human imagination, literary and scientific. The improbable had become possible. The dream of flying is a dream of being more than human. It is the desire to leave terra firma for something ethereal and undefined but more interesting than the mundane existence of life walking the same patch of ground every day. There are other worlds out there that we might reach if we could raise ourselves above the limitations of known reality. To find those worlds we have to learn how to fly. There were many attempts to fly as the birds fly. These experiments were often by hopeful amateurs, often with disastrous consequences.

In the Nineteenth Century a seriously scientific approach replaced daredevil antics.

It was not going to be long before someone not only proposed a flying machine but actually built one. Fear of sorcery was vanishing in an age of reason, intellect and enquiry. The Renaissance had been an age of faith. There were powerful constraints on the over-reaching ambition of human beings. The growth of Science depended on a breaking of all bounds on factual knowledge and speculative experiment. The Nineteenth Century’s essential motor was its challenge to traditional beliefs. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond the realm of scientific invention. If a flying machine were possible, then there was no obstacle to its construction with ingenuity, patience and money.

George Cayley, a Yorkshire squire, at the close of the Eighteenth Century had constructed a prototype of the helicopter. In 1804 Cayley had built and flown a glider. In 1810 Cayley wrote On Aerial Navigation, a treatise of enduring value and an acknowledged influence on the Wright Brothers. Cayley’s importance lies in his understanding that lift, propulsion and control were the three required elements of flight. He is regarded as the first person to advance this idea.

Once the principles of flight were established the possibility of constructing a workable machine was credible. Cayley continued to experiment throughout his long life. A man of property, he had necessary wealth and leisure to devote himself to aeronautics. All his work, however, was on gliders rather than motorised machines. Powered flight was left to others to develop.

One of Cayley’s machines was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Beneath the magnificence of the Crystal Palace all the great wonders of empire and the age of invention were displayed. The world had the opportunity to see a flying machine, though not actually in flight. Yet the new possibility remained hidden in plain sight. Unless it was seen to take to the air Cayley’s machine was going to be dismissed as no more than an interesting curio. Cayley, now an old man, no longer had the health to pursue his plans. His workable models gathered dust.

             Some proposals never went beyond the theoretical stage. An Edinburgh publisher, mainly of seafarers and adventurers, John Howell, devised a flying machine. Sailing to the farthest reaches of the oceans was not enough for the enquiring minds of the machine age. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician of precocious genius, sketched a machine based on her careful studies on the structures of birds’ wings. She was eleven years in age, and already she was reaching for the stars.

Perhaps inspired by George Cayley’s experiments, two enterprising manufacturers in Somerset were at work not on theoretical designs or working models but on powered machines that could take to the air. The Aerial Transit Company was established in 1843. It was timely for such an enterprise to emerge. There was an inevitability about the venture. Someone with mechanical knowledge and an inventive mind was going to apply the principles and techniques of manufacture to the possibility of powered flight.

John Stringfellow and William Henson had patented an ‘aerial steam carriage’ the previous year. Their description of the proposed machine was detailed with pedantic exactness. Theirs was no flight of fancy, but a work of technical sophistication. The precision of the mechanism was there clearly to dispel all prejudicial doubt. This was to be a machine that could succeed where so many dreamers had failed, and so often had died in the process.

The first thing to be said is that the machine they built actually flew. The fact is well attested by reliable witnesses. It took another sixty years before the Wright brothers at Kittyhawk took to the air. Their machine was piloted, whereas nobody actually flew in Stringfellow’s flying machine. 

That was the problem. Stringfellow and Henson were ahead of their time. Had they piloted their machine, and had the world observed their flight as it did the Wright brothers, the development of aviation should have been so very different. As things were the Somerset experiment has been no more than a footnote, generally ignored. The sadness is that the opportunity had been timely. It suited the ambitions and capabilities of the age, but the impetus failed.

The question is whether the dream of flight could have been a Victorian reality. The world, for good or ill, then would have been so much more connected. An opportunity was lost. This is not so surprising when we consider the customary delay between invention and application. Ideas and inventions are often ahead of their time. That is how the world progresses.

Stringfellow had ideas for flight that would take decades to come to fruition. He showed a flair for publicity as well as for technical skill. Advertisements for the company portrayed images of flights to Egypt and China. His machines were going to fly over the Pyramids and the Great Wall. In reality these things would not be possible for the better part of a century, long after Stringfellow was dead and forgotten.

He deserves to be better remembered. The Wright brothers took all the credit for the pioneering work of others. Planes did not suddenly rise into the air by chance. A century and more of experiment lay behind the much-publicised achievement at Kittyhawk. Stringellow’s machine was unpeopled, but it is clear that a peopled machine could have been built. The sad truth is that it never was built. The history of many things would have been very different had Stringfellow been able to pursue his dream.

This was how Stringellow’s son remembered the experiment many years later: ‘The steam was successfully got up after a slight mishap; the machine started down the wire and upon reaching the point of self-detachment, gradually rose until it reached the further end of the room, striking a hole in the canvas placed to stop it.’

Twenty years later Stringfellow repeated the experiment at the Crystal Palace in front of the Prince of Wales. The newly-formed Aeronautical Society of Great Britain had not forgotten the pioneer of powered flight. His later experiment was successful, but excited only a casual and ephemeral curiosity. An opportunity was missed, although the reasons are not clear. Stringfellow’s last experiment was not conducted in obscurity. It ought to have aroused serious interest. What could have been a great advance was regarded as a mere toy. It was soon forgotten, as was its creator, a true pioneer of technology whose name even now is barely known.

There the Stringfellow story ends. He died hoping others would follow in the wake of his invention. A sense of failure undoubtedly haunted him. His career was one of the great might-have-beens of history.

His spirit, however, did not die. Experiments with flying machines continued, although it was many years before anyone could claim anything approaching success. In the closing months of the Nineteenth Century Percy Pilcher of Bath demonstrated piloted powered flight. The flight, however, went badly. Pilcher crashed and was fatally injured.

There is film of Pilcher flying two years earlier in 1897, but it was not a powered flight. Pilcher’s story is also one that arouses speculation. Had he survived the crash, and had he flown again perhaps the world would have seen the dream of powered flight realized in him.

What we can deduce from these experiments is the obvious yet overlooked truth that there is rarely a single inventor of anything. Edison was not the first to record sound. The Wright Brothers’ machine was not the first to fly. Technical discoveries are not discoveries in the sense of there being nothing before. Just as Columbus was not the first to navigate across the Atlantic, inventors rarely actually invent. What they do is advance a technique, perfecting its capability from successive experiments. What begins as a fantasy develops into an idea that is realized after a number of failed or only partially successful attempts.

Stringfellow’s conjecture of aerial flight connecting the world proved remarkably prophetic. It was not a romantic fiction but a serious ambition that the Twentieth Century saw as not only possible but inevitable. Stringfellow, like other pioneers, understood the power of publicity to voice his idea. The development of powered flight was simultaneous to the development of mass publicity through photography and motion pictures.

This was not coincidence and the working of chance, but an identifiable synchronicity. Powered flight could have been developed sooner. We have seen how it took a century for the projection of flight to be fully realized. The advance of mechanised industry created a vast store of manufactured goods in need of markets where they might be distributed. Where a farmer had taken his produce to the nearest town, an industrialist sought markets beyond the bounds of one locality or even one country. Air transport proved useful in this distribution.

The spirit of commerce and trade was one of global expansion. That depended on technical means of rapid communication. Goods had to be transported easily. Public awareness had to be facilitated quickly. Rail travel was one means, telegraphy another. Powered flight was exceptionally valuable for this purpose. Crossing oceans and continents in days, then hours, rather than weeks or months served the purposes of commercial expansion perfectly. Air travel used publicity to advance its cause. At the same time it advanced the means of global commerce and its handmaid, mass publicity.

This may explain why air travel was developed from eccentric whim to realisable achievement. An economic and social need provided the dynamic of fulfilment. The question remains why the impulse to fly was there in mind, as it had been for centuries. An age of discovery, including scientific and mechanical discovery, provided clear encouragement, as we have seen. The impulse preceded eccentric Victorians applying capable techniques.

The impulse to fly seems to be deep within the human psyche. Famously, there are elaborately landscaped figures in South America which can be seen only from the air. It could be that they were intended to be viewed by the gods. That seems very likely. Another possibility is that the ancient world had made discoveries of flying [presumably by gliding] that are lost. There is no evidence, only the surmise. This is very unscholarly, of course, and veers too close to the kind of sensationalist speculation that serves only to entertain the gullible in drug store paperbacks.

A more credible explanation is that the dream of flying, evidenced in a number of cultures, overwhelmed dreamers into not only writing of flying myths but to actually create the myth in reality. If they could not build a flying machine they could envisage that it might be possible at some time in the future, a future that could be induced by evocations like the landscaped figures. That may sound rather like building an airport in hope that aircraft will appear. That is not so foolish if you fervently believe that air travel is possible. There were creatures who could fly. Was it not possible that human beings might learn how to harness the technique for their own purposes?

The answer is that yes, it was possible. It happened. The motive was not entirely economic. The reasons are not explained wholly by the urge towards technical advance. The essential impulse, surely, was the freedom that flying offers. Who has not seen birds fly and not admired their ability to go where they please in the sky? The desire is to leave behind all that binds us to mundane tasks. If only we could head for the clouds. If only we had wings. We talk of ‘flights of fancy’. We talk of ‘coming down to earth.’ These phrases are not simply plucked out of nowhere. They speak of age-old desires and the persistent reality of our condition.

We should like Ariel’s magic, although we know that it is mere revelry with its hint of devilry. The flying man of Pocklington was a daredevil. Stringfellow was less of a showman and more of a serious technician, but his vision had its elements of risk, of defying not only gravity but the natural limitations of human existence. The aspiration to fly is to take angel’s wings although we are lower than the angels. To be more than ourselves, to be higher than ourselves, is a natural aspiration of the human spirit. We always seek to venture beyond the bounds. We seek mastery of the air as we do of the land the sea. What begins in legend becomes a playful possibility, then a serious experiment. Eventually we take to the air and we fly into clouds, then beyond to the stars.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

About Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is a poetry reviewer with The London Magazine. Recent creative work includes poetry for Dead Ink, The English Chicago Review, International Literary Quarterly, London Grip, Message in a Bottle, The Passionate Transitory, The Recusant and three anthologies, Connection, In on the Tide and Underground. There is recent fiction for Open Wide, Vintage Script and Writers’ Hub. New essays for Cerise Press and New Linear Perspectives are published this year. Geoffrey’s recent theatre writing includes a play, Providence, published in The Lampeter Review.

Geoffrey Heptonstall is a poetry reviewer with The London Magazine. Recent creative work includes poetry for Dead Ink, The English Chicago Review, International Literary Quarterly, London Grip, Message in a Bottle, The Passionate Transitory, The Recusant and three anthologies, Connection, In on the Tide and Underground. There is recent fiction for Open Wide, Vintage Script and Writers’ Hub. New essays for Cerise Press and New Linear Perspectives are published this year. Geoffrey’s recent theatre writing includes a play, Providence, published in The Lampeter Review.

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