Jan 13, 2020 I Micah Hanks

Aerial Anachronism: An Odd Reference to Mechanical Flight from the Middle Ages

“[O]nce you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you would return.”

This quote is first known to have appeared in an educational film from 1965 called “I, Leonardo Davinci.” The script for the program was written by Italian born television producer John H. Secondari, and although there is no evidence that da Vinci actually ever said this, the quote is often attributed to him.

Had da Vinci every really uttered these words, it might indeed be of interest to researchers of the history of aviation, since the discussion of when ideas about flying machines first appeared is fundamental to our understanding of actual mechanical flight, and its origins.

Though we are left to want regarding the quote above and its attribution to Davinci, better examples of anachronistic references to mechanical flight exist. In the writings of early English philosopher and empiricist Roger Bacon, we have the following intriguing passage:

“There may bee made instruments of Nauigation without men to rowe in them … yea instruments to flie withall, so that one sitting in the middle of the Instrument, and turning about an Engine, by which the winges being artificially composed may beate the ayre after the maner of a flying bird … And it is certaine that there is an instrument to flie with, which I neuer sawe, nor any man that hath seene it, but I full wel know by name the learned man that inuented the same.”

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Artist's conception of Roger Bacon at work in his study (Public Domain).

Although it lands far from proof of such things as flying vehicles in ancient times, the quote is interesting for simpler reasons: namely, that it is among the earliest European references to mechanical flight ever cited by a scholar.

We are left to wonder precisely what Bacon was referencing, although it is not particularly strange that he would be the source for such a statement. Bacon, after all, was so widely regarded in his day that he was believed by many of his peers to be a wizard, and to be in possession of a “brazen head,” an eerie mechanical visage which took the shape of the head and shoulders of a man, which could answer any question. (It should be noted that some scholars choose not to interpret the “brazen head” literally, but instead perceive it more or less as a symbol or theme in reference to a wise individual. Regardless, the attribution of mechanical forms to Bacon and his work is perhaps of significance here.)

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An early 20th century depiction of Bacon's "Brazen Head" (Public Domain).

In his fascinating work Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories, historian Benjamin B. Olshin notes that “Unfortunately, Bacon does not give us any further details. Moreover, the description is unrealistic from a modern perspective, in that the artificial imitation of the beating of a bird’s wings is not a good solution to the challenge of manned flight, as Leonardo da Vinci discovered.

“Regardless,” he continues, “it is interesting that… the mechanical nature of the device is clear in this description, from the use of the term ‘instrument’ to the mention of an ‘engine’.”

Olshin, in addition to making an appropriate allusion to da Vinci's later experiments with flight, goes on to note that Bacon leaves us to wonder about where this enigmatic knowledge of flying vehicles had been received. It is similar, Olshin further notes, to other early references that appear in literature and mythology from around the world, which at least seem to convey knowledge of the concept of mechanical flight dating back several centuries, as Bacon’s account from the 1200s does.

Whatever the source for Bacon’s imaginings discussed here, they may provide a fascinating glimpse at the way early thinkers perceived flight technologies, as well as the concepts that led to the eventual creation of manned aircraft.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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