What was man's first attempt to fly?

Examples of Early Flight

Icarus Icarus
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 below 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