One Day I’ll Fly Away

03 08 burattini dragonToday is the birthday of Tito Livio Burattini, who was born at Agordo in northern Italy in 1617. Burattini explored and measured the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the late 1630s with an English mathematician called John Greaves. But I don’t want to write about that today. He was also the first person to come up with the word metre for a standard unit of length. If your interested, it was first described as the length a pendulum needs to be to measure one second with each swing. But I don’t want to go into any more detail about that either. I don’t even want to tell you about the time he was running a mint in Poland and got into trouble for adding glass to the coins. Today, I want to tell you about Burattini’s flying machine.

As I’ve spent the last two days banging on about seventeenth century authors who wrote about imaginary flying machines, I thought it would be nice to tell you about someone who properly had a go at building one. In the 1640s Burattini went to live in Poland, where he worked as architect for King Wladislaw IV. In 1647, he built a working model of a flying machine. It is generally described as a glider, but it appears to have had moving parts, so perhaps it was an Ornithopter, a machine with wings that flap like a bird. It was four or five feet long and could rise into the air carrying a cat as a passenger. History does not record how the cat felt about this. Pierre des Noyers, who was secretary to the Queen of Poland, said it remained airborne as long as a man kept the feathers and wheels in motion by way of a string. It was demonstrated before the Polish court at the request of the King. He must have been impressed because Burattini was granted money from the Royal Treasury to build a full sized model.

By May 1648, he had built his ‘Dragon Volant’ (Flying Dragon). Again, according to des Noyers, it had four pairs of wings. The two middle pairs seem to have been fixed and were for lift. The rear pair also provided lift but, along with the pair at the front, were designed to flap, by means of pulleys, and propel it forwards. It also had a large tail which moved in all directions for steering. The tail was also meant to act as a float, in case of emergency landing on water. The machine was designed to carry a crew of three. Two operating the wings at either end and a ‘master of the ship’ in the middle. It also carried a large folding parachute in case the wings failed or they needed to slow its descent. Apparently, Burattini claimed that landing the craft would only cause the most minor of injuries, so that’s a comfort.

We are told that it was tested and did rise into the air, but was never completely successful. Burattini was convinced that it would work and that he would be able to use it to fly from Warsaw to Constantinople inside twelve hours, a distance of about a thousand miles. No one knows what happened to his machine. It may have been destroyed by the Swedes when they invaded Warsaw in 1655.

03 08 george cayleyIn my brief research today, I’ve actually found several attempts at human flight previous to Tito Livio Burattini. Mostly they end with someone simply falling off a tower or crashing through a roof. In 1540, there was João Torto, from Portugal. He made himself two large pairs of calico wings and also a helmet shaped like the head of an eagle. He crashed because the helmet slipped over his eyes. Some time in the sixteenth century, a French labourer built himself wings from two winnowing baskets and a coal shovel for a tail. He fell out of a pear tree into a drain. In 1600, there was Paolo Guidotti who built wings of whalebone, feathers and springs. He is reported to have flown a quarter of a mile before his arms grew tired. None of these people can really be described as having flown. They really only devised a means of falling more slowly. The first truly successful heavier than air flying machine would not be flown for over 150 years. It was built by someone who is, for me, a bit of a local boy as he was from Scarborough in North Yorkshire. George Cayley built a glider which he flew in 1804. He properly understood the principles of weight, lift, drag and thrust that you need to know about if you want to build an aircraft. He also knew the importance of cambered wings. His significance in the history of flight was acknowledged by the Wright brothers.


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