1902 Encyclopedia > Aeronautics > Aerostatic Attempts by Ancient Greeks and Romans. Daedalus and Icarus. Archytas.

(Part 2)

Aerostatic Attempts by Ancient Greeks and Romans. Daedalus and Icarus. Archytas.

The subject of aerostation is scarcely ever alluded to by the classical writers, and the fable of Daedalus and Icarus, and the dove of Archytas, form almost all we have to record in relation to flying previous to the dark ages. Daedalus, an Athenian, killed his nephew Talus through jealousy of his talents, and fled with his son Icarus to Crete, where he built the celebrated labyrinth for Minos, the king. But having offened Minos, so that he was imprisoned by him, he made wings of feathers, cemented with wax, for himself and his son, so that they might escape by flight. He gave his son directions to fly neither too low nor too high, but to follow him. Icarus, however, becoming excited, forgot his father's advice, and rose so high that the heat of the sun melted the wax of his wings, and he fell into the sea near Samos, the island of Icaria and the Icarian sea being named after him. Daedalus accomplished his flight in safety. (Ovid, Met. Lib. Vii. Fab. iii.) The explanation of the myth may be, as has been supposed, that Daedalus used sails, which, till then, according to Pausanius and Palaephatus, were unknown, and so was enabled to escape from Minos' galleys, which were only provide dwith oars; and that Icarus was drowned near the island Icaria. But the whole story of daedalus is so fancifula romance, that it is scarcely worth while even to speculate upon what the infinitesimal fragment of truth that lay at the bottom of it may have been.

Archytas of Tarentum was a well-known geometer and astronomer, and he is apostrophized by Horace (Ode 28. lib. I). The account of his flying pigeon or dove we owe to Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae), who says "that it was the model of a dove or a pigeon formed in wood, and so contrived as by a certain mechanical art and power to fly: so nicely was it balanced by weights, and put in motion by hidden and enclosed air. Gellius gives as his authorities "many men of eminence among the Greeks," whom he does not mention by name, and Favorinus the philosopher.

Archytas thus has been regarded as holding to aeronautics much about the same position as Archimedes does to the mechanical science; but while the claim of the latter rests on real discoveries and great contributions to knowledge, the former owes his position merely to an unsupported and untrustworthy tradition. When the fire-balloon was invented, it was only natural that many should see in the "hidden and enclosed air" of Archytas' dove a previous discovery of the hot-air balloon. It is quite possible that Archytas may have rarefied the air in his down by heat, and so made it ascend; but in this case it certainly could not have been made of wood. But if the dove ever was made to appear to fly, it is much the more probable that this --effect was produced, as in the scenes at theatres, by means of fine strings or wires invisible to the spectators.

The ancients seem to have been convinced of the impossibility of men being able to fly, and they appear to have made no attempts in this direction at all. The power of flying was attributed only to the most powerful of the divinities; and it was regarded as only secondary to Jupiter's prerogative of flashing the lightning and hurling the thunderbolt.

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