What was man's first attempt to fly?

Flight Image Gallery When early humans attempted to fly, they mimicked birds -- often with disastrous results. See more pictures of flight. Ullstein Bild via Getty Image

Today­, the sight of condensation trails crisscrossing the sky or aircraft lights blinkin­g against the stars are common occurrences. In fact, many parts of the world experience a near-constant ebb and flow of air traffic. This, however, is a recent phen­omenon in human history. For thousands of years, only birds took wing and all man could do was stand stranded beneath the vaulted heavens -- dreaming of one ­day taking to the skies as well.

The major aviation victories of the last three centuries are well documented. Historians credit France's Montgolfier brothers with pioneering balloon flight in 1783, and Germany's Otto Lilienthal with the first successful glider flight in the 1890s. America's Wright brothers made the first successful flight in a small engine plane in 1903. While these accomplishments were certainly groundbreaking, they were far from man's first attempt to fly.

­Pinpointing man's first attempt at flight is a difficult -- if not impossible -- task. For starters, what constitutes an attempt -- a caveman flapping his arms and chasing after a flock of geese? As ridiculous as this image may be, how else might early humans have attempted to mimic the flight mechanics of birds? They had no understanding of physics and had only their observations to go on. Even today, you can find young children carrying out this same experiment.

Man's dream of flight is so ancient that it permeates most myths and religions. Glance at any ancient civilization's art and you'll likely find images of winged humanoids. Archeologists have discovered such sights in prehistoric caves dating back 4,300 years [source: Simek]. Additional tales of men taking to the skies on artificial wings trail back through much of recorded history.

So, what might have been man's first attempt to fly? Our understanding of the past is limited by the surviving artifacts and historical accounts, but a few accounts from history and legend stand out above the rest.

If you think Wile E. Coyote was the first to strap on a pair of wings and fall off a cliff, prepare to be disillusioned. Read the next page to learn how many thousands of years humans have spent plummeting from great heights with the hopes of taking flight.

Examples of Early Flight

Examples of Early Flight
The Fall of Icarus by Carlo Saraceni. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The tale of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the most famous (and mythical) examples of early flight. According to legend, the father and son duo took to the sky on wings crafted from wood, wax, twine and bird feathers. Daedalus survived the flight, while Icarus plummeted to his death when the sun melted the wax holding his wings together. Historians typically date the story back to at least 1400 B.C. [source: Scott].

But is there any truth mingled in with this mythical tale? Might Daedalus have existed, in one form or another, as man attempted to use primitive technology to soar through the air like a bird more than three millennia ago?

We can't be sure if there's any real historical basis for Daedalus and son, but they certainly weren't the only ones to risk their lives on a pair of artificial wings. Fabyan's "The Chronicles" (A.D. 1596) described how King Bladud tried a similar feat around 850 B.C. The monarch donned wings, climbed to the top of the temple of Apollo (in what's now London), and launched himself out into midair [source: Hart]. Tragically, the Bronze Age aviator promptly fell to his death. While most historians consider the story legendary, some believe it may have some factual basis.

Similar tales of failed flights on fake wings pop up throughout the last 2,000 years. Around A.D. 60, a winged actor attempted to liven up a party held by Roman Emperor Nero, only to fall to his death [source: Hart]. Shockingly, this wasn't even considered a particularly odd occurrence at the time. Other incidents followed, with would-be aviators leaping off mosques, cathedrals, castle walls and towers across the globe -- often into the arms of death. Of the 50 attempts documented in Clive Hart's "The Prehistory of Flight," as many as a dozen may have actually flown or glided for a few brief moments.

Artificial wings weren't the only method employed by early aviation pioneers. The Chinese popularized -- and perhaps invented -- the kite some time around 1,000 B.C. [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Various accounts from the following centuries tell of men taking to the air on these devices. When famed Italian explorer Marco Polo returned from China in 1295, he claimed to have seen Chinese sailors hoist drunken crewmembers up into the air on large kites [source: Leinhard]. A Japanese tale from the late 16th century tells how legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon, suspended from a large kite, was guided by his accomplices into a heavily guarded castle [source: Cornish].

Regardless of when humans made the first attempt, the fact remains that man has quested after the power to fly since prehistoric times. It's only in the last century that we have reached the point where we can take this technological achievement for granted.

Explore the links on the next page to learn more about the past, present and future of human flight.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Aviation." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2008. (July 3, 2008)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/45694/aviation
  • Cornish, Joseph J. "Go Fly a Kite." Natural History. April 1957. (July 3, 2008)http://www.nhmag.com/master.html?http://www.nhmag.com/editors_pick/1957_04_pick.html
  • Gardiner, T. Edward. "Hot Air Balloons." History Magazine. February 2004.
  • Hart, Clive. "The Prehistory of Flight." University of California Press. September 1985.
  • Havely, Joe. "China's Ming Dynasty astronaut." CNN. Dec. 22, 2003.http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/space/09/30/china.wanhu/index.html
  • "The History of Flight." Century of Flight. (July 3, 2008)http://www.century-of-flight.net/index.htm
  • "Kite." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2008. (July 3, 2008)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/319666/kite
  • "Kites. A brief history." Australian Kite Association. (July 3, 2008)http://www.aka.org.au/kites_in_the_classroom/history.htm
  • Lienhard, John H. "No. 340: Man-Flying Kites." Engines of Our Ingenuity. 1997. (July 3, 2008)http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi340.htm
  • Nickell, Joe. "The Nazca Lines Revisited: Creation of a Full-Sized Duplicate." The Skeptical Inquirer. 1983. (July 3, 2008)http://www.onagocag.com/nazca.html
  • "Nazca Lines." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2008. (July 3, 2008)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/407180/Nazca-Lines#default
  • Rumerman, Judy. "The Earliest Efforts at Flight." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. (July 3, 2008)http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Prehistory/earliest_flight/PH1.htm
  • Scott, Phil. "The Shoulders of Giants." Helix Books. 1995.
  • Simek, Jan F. "Prehistoric Cave Art." The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 1998. (July 2, 2008)http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/imagegallery.php?EntryID=P046