SHIPS IN THE AIR
Or a Short History of Flights of Fantasy
“…Give me the ships, with sails adapted to the heavenly wind; there will be fearless people, even if they face the immensity. And for those descendants who in short time will venture themselves by these ways we will prepare…” The words are from Johannes Kepler, written to Galileo Galilei in his “Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo” published in 1610. Four centuries ago.
A few days ago, I was exchanging e-mails with a good friend who works in publishing, and somehow we got to wondering about the imagery of ships in the sky. I hardly require a better excuse than that to embark on a frivolous image quest.
I’m sure most of us have, somewhere tucked away in our memories, faded or vivid, the image of a galleon tacking across a cloudscape or a sea of stars. They are, along with many other modern archetypes, part of our collective culture, evoking a sense of wonderment, a Peter Pan image that never grows stale, that never grows up.
But who first put ships in the air?
When the Tuatha Dé Danaan invaded Ireland, they arrived in flying ships. This may be a juxtaposition of two accounts – the earlier, the Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Invasions, speaking of their arrival in “dark clouds” that obscured the sun for three days. A later account speaks of ships, which they burnt, so that regret might not drive them to flee.
The 9th-century Carolingian bishop Agobard of Lyon also speaks of cloud ships sailing from the realm of Magonia, allied with Frankish tempestarii, and wreaking havoc on crops. In his words: “But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers, and take the grain and other crops. Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships. As I have said, they exhibited these four, who had been chained up for some days, with such a meeting finally assembling in our presence, as if these captives ought to be stoned. But when truth had prevailed, however, after much argument, the people who had exhibited the captives, in accordance with the prophecy (Jeremiah 2:26) ‘were confounded … as the thief is confounded when he is taken.’ ” (Agobard’s treatise on weather magic admittedly is far more exciting than your average evening news forecast, though he was more concerned about witch-hunts instigated to prosecute those suspected of causing foul weather.)
Hindu mythology speaks of flying vessels. In the Ramayana (Rajya-Abhisheka, Book XI, Chapter III), the pushpaka (flowery) vimana of Ravana, the first flying vimana mentioned in Hindu mythology is described as follows: “The Pushpaka chariot that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent chariot going everywhere at will …that chariot resembling a bright cloud in the sky…and the king [Rama] got in, and the excellent chariot at the command of the Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere.”
The Egyptian sun god Ra possessed a solar barge, sailing across the sky from east to west, and then back through the Underworld each night, where he and his crew-members fought off repeated attacks from the foul and viscous Apophis, who would throw his bulk at them from the darkness of Duat’s stygian regions.
An aside; other means of heavenly transport were popular, chariots being the favourite means of locomotion. Apollo or Helios, or Phaëton, Thor, Indra, Pūsan, Mog Ruith all had chariots that flew. (Another aside, but only for the beautifully wild imagery: Irish demi-god Manannan mac Lir possessed a chariot which he could drive on the waves as surely as the land.)
Nor is the Bible devoid of solar chariots – in Kings 2, God sends a fiery conveyance drawn by flaming horses to convey Elijah to Heaven (He had originally opted for a whirlwind).
Left: Astronomer Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) Copy of a portrait dated 1610, from the Benediktinerkloster in Krems, unknown artist.
Centre: Legendary Flying ships
A. Page from the Book of Leinster containing a compilation of medieval Irish literature, genealogy and myth. It includes amongst other elements the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions);
B. Bishop Agobard
D. Rama welcomed home, 17th century manuscript of the Ramayana.
E. Rama returns homeward in a red flying vessel, from a 17th century manuscript of the Ramayana
F. Amon-Ra and his solar barge.
Right: Mythical flying chariots
A. Trundholm sun chariot
B. Helios, from a cycle of planetary themes, Schloss Eggenberg
C. Phaéton on the Chariot of Apollo by Nicolas Bertin, circa 1720
D. The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens
E. Thor’s Battle Against the Ettins by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872
F. Giuseppe Angeli, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire by Guiseppe Angeli, 1740-45, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
G. Konark Sun Temple Chariot Wheel
All in all, though, early tales of flying ships and chariots find their most fervent advocates amongst Theosophists and UFO enthusiasts; proof, if you will, of ancient alien tourism. A fine example comes from the Rig Veda, verses RV 1.164.47-48, where the one translation of the text reads: “Dark the descent: the birds are golden-coloured; up to the heaven they fly robed in the waters.
Again descend they from the seat of Order, and all the earth is moistened with their fatness.”
“Twelve are the fellies, and the wheel is single; three are the naves. What man hath understood it?
Therein are set together spokes three hundred and sixty, which in nowise can be loosened.” (translation: Griffith)
In Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s translation, these verses become:
“jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water ... containing twelve stamghas (pillars), one wheel, three machines, 300 pivots, and 60 instruments.”
Flying saucers, anyone? We moderns are ever at the mercy of our translators.
Will you pardon another aside? (This newsletter is becoming as unpredictable as Kai Kavoos’ flight, about which I haven’t even spoken yet.) Following is an extensive and delicious quote from The Story of Atlantis: A Geographical, Historical and Ethnological Sketch by W. Scott-Elliot, published in 1896, which achieves a delightfully deft blend of cusp-of-the-century science, romanticism, proto-steampunk and just plain daydreaming, likely induced by the fumes of too much midnight oil consumed in the study of ancient Hindu texts:
“If the system of water supply in the “City of the Golden Gates” was wonderful, the Atlantean methods of locomotion must be recognised as still more marvellous, for the air-ship or flying-machine which Keely in America, and Maxim in this country are now attempting to produce, was then a realised fact. It was not at any time a common means of transport. The slaves, the servants, and the masses who laboured with their hands, had to trudge along the country tracks, or travel in rude carts with solid wheels drawn by uncouth animals. The air-boats may be considered as the private carriages of those days, or rather the private yachts, if we regard the relative number of those who possessed them, for they must have been at all times difficult and costly to produce. They were not as a rule built to accommodate many persons. Numbers were constructed for only two, some allowed for six or eight passengers. In the later days when war and strife had brought the Golden Age to an end, battle ships that could navigate the air had to a great extent replaced the battle ships at sea—having naturally proved far more powerful engines of destruction. These were constructed to carry as many as fifty, and in some cases even up to a hundred fighting men.
The material of which the air-boats were constructed was either wood or metal. The earlier ones were built of wood-the boards used being exceedingly thin, but the injection of some substance which did not add materially to the weight, while it gave leather-like toughness, provided the necessary combination of lightness and strength. When metal was used it was generally an alloy—two white-coloured metals and one red one entering into its composition. The resultant was white-coloured, like aluminium, and even lighter in weight. Over the rough framework of the air-boat was extended a large sheet of this metal, which was then beaten into shape, and electrically welded where necessary. But whether built of metal or wood their outside surface was apparently seamless and perfectly smooth, and they shone in the dark as if coated with luminous paint.
In shape they were boat-like, but they were invariably decked over, for when at full speed it could not have been convenient, even if safe, for any on board to remain on the upper deck. Their propelling and steering gear could be brought into use at either end.
But the all-interesting question is that relating to the power by which they were propelled. In the earlier times it seems to have been personal vril that supplied the motive power—whether used in conjunction with any mechanical contrivance matters not much—but in the later days this was replaced by a force which, though generated in what is to us an unknown manner, operated nevertheless through definite mechanical arrangements. This force, though not yet discovered by science, more nearly approached that which Keely in America used to handle than the electric power used by Maxim. It was in fact of an etheric nature, but though we are no nearer to the solution of this problem, its method of operation can be described. The mechanical arrangements no doubt differed somewhat in different vessels. The following description is taken from an air-boat in which on one occasion three ambassadors from the king who ruled over the northern part of Poseidonis made the journey to the court of the southern kingdom. A strong heavy metal chest which lay in the centre of the boat was the generator. Thence the force flowed through two large flexible tubes to either end of the vessel, as well as through eight subsidiary tubes fixed fore and aft to the bulwarks. These had double openings pointing vertically both up and down. When the journey was about to begin the valves of the eight bulwark tubes which pointed downwards were opened—all the other valves being closed. The current rushing through these impinged on the earth with such force as to drive the boat upwards, while the air itself continued to supply the necessary fulcrum. When a sufficient elevation was reached the flexible tube at that end of the vessel which pointed away from the desired destination, was brought into action, while by the partial closing of the valves the current rushing through the eight vertical tubes was reduced to the small amount required to maintain the elevation reached. The great volume of current, being now directed through the large tube pointing downwards from the stern at an angle of about forty-five degrees, while helping to maintain the elevation, provided also the great motive power to propel the vessel through the air. The steering was accomplished by the discharge of the current through this tube, for the slightest change in its direction at once caused an alteration in the vessel’s course. But constant supervision was not required. When a long journey had to be taken the tube could be fixed so as to need no handling till the destination was almost reached. The maximum speed attained was about one hundred miles an hour, the course of flight never being a straight line, but always in the form of long waves, now approaching and now receding from the earth. The elevation at which the vessels travelled was only a few hundred feet—indeed, when high mountains lay in the line of their track it was necessary to change their course and go round them—the more rarefied air no longer supplying the necessary fulcrum. Hills of about one thousand feet were the highest they could cross. The means by which the vessel was brought to a stop on reaching its destination—and this could be done equally well in mid-air—was to give escape to some of the current force through the tube at that end of the boat which pointed towards its destination, and the current impinging on the land or air in front, acted as a drag, while the propelling force behind was gradually reduced by the closing of the valve. The reason has still to be given for the existence of the eight tubes pointing upwards from the bulwarks. This had more especially to do with the aerial warfare. Having so powerful a force at their disposal, the warships naturally directed the current against each other. Now this was apt to destroy the equilibrium of the ship so struck and to turn it upside down—a situation sure to be taken advantage of by the enemy’s vessel to make an attack with her ram. There was also the further danger of being precipitated to the ground, unless the shutting and opening of the necessary valves were quickly attended to. In whatever position the vessel might be, the tubes pointing towards the earth were naturally those through which the current should be rushing, while the tubes pointing upwards should be closed. The means by which a vessel turned upside down, might be righted and placed again on a level keel, was accomplished by using the four tubes pointing downwards at one side of the vessel only, while the four at the other side were kept closed.
The Atlanteans had also sea-going vessels which were propelled by some power analogous to that above mentioned, but the current force which was eventually found to be most effective in this case was denser than that used in the air-boats.”
Likely enough, it’s vril power that makes Plato turn over in his grave.
Alexander the Great famously took to the sky in a comfortable seat borne aloft by a quarto of griffins (in passing, he also invented the diving bell), but he was copying an exploit already realized twelve centuries before by Kai Kavoos, as the Persian poet Ferdowsi recorded in the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. Kai Kavoos was a powerful ruler, and like all powerful rulers, sensitive to criticism. A div, or evil spirit, in the guise of a handsome youth taunted him by pretending that his earthly spendour was but that – earthly, and the skies escaped his rule. A true king should rule the heavens also, and Kai Kavoos resolved to take possession of the heavens. He commanded a wood and gold throne to be constructed, with an eagle attached to each corner, a leg of mutton suspended above each. The eagles strained upwards to attain their meal, raising him into the clouds. He eventually crash-landed in China, but was rescued by his compatriot, the hero Rostam. The tale was popular in Persia from the 3rd century onwards. Alexander held kebabs aloft scepter-like to entice his griffins to fly, apparently did a quick tour in the airs above Nineveh and landed safely. Due to his greater notoriety, he stole the show from his Persian precursor. The myth was hugely popular from the 9th century until well into the Renaissance, when it faded from fashionable iconography. Alexander did manage to have the airport in Skopje named after him, although whether or not in-flight meals can also be attributed to him is another matter.
Left: Alexander’s heavenly flight
A. Byzantine relief of Alexander the Great with a chariot with Griffins. Peribleptos Mistra bas-relief, 10th century
B. Alexander the Great in a chariot drawn by griffins, enamel, circa 1160, Victoria & Albert Museum
C. Mosaic from Otranto, 1166
D. Alexander with eagles in lieu of griffins. Banner, dated 1266, from the Mainfränkisches Museum, Würzburg.
E. Manuscript illustration of Alexander’s heavenly flight, 14th century(?)
F. Capital, late twelfth - early thirteenth century, Freiburg im Breisgau
G. Plate with depiction of Alexander the Great’s heavenly flight, Byzantium, late 12th - early 13th century.
H. The Romance of Alexander, illustration by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44
I. Miniature from the Romance of Alexander, 15th century (?)
J. Jans Jansen Enikel, Weltchronik Heidelberg, about 1420
K. 15th century misericord from St Mary’s Church, Beverley, Yorkshire.
L. Detail from a 15th century Flemish tapestry
M. Woodcut, dated ca. 1516, attributed to Hans Schäufelein
Centre: The Flight of Kai Kavoos
Left: miniature from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, circa.1525-30
Center: Miniature from the Shahnameh
Right: Kai Kavoos, or “An Early Idea of Aviation”, courtesy of Wills’s Cigarettes, back when smoking was not only good for you, but educational as well.
Right: The Departure of Vainamoinen, by Askeli Gallen-Kalella
Other legendary heroes attempted similar maiden flights: Nimrod, after his unsuccessful attempt to reach Heaven by the laborious expedient of building the Tower of Babel, elected to try in a chest to which he attached four eagles. He was no luckier, and crashed into a mountain which shook with the impact.
In the fiftieth and last song of the Finnish Kalevala, the hero Väinämöinen sets sail from earth and earthly travails, leaving his songs and his harp as legacy.
So old Väinämöinen sailed,
Sailed out in his copper vessel,
In his winged copper boat,
To the upper worldly regions,
To the lowest levels of the heavens.
Wingèd celestial steeds were also much sought after, but that is well beyond even my admittedly haphazard flight plan.
Flying ships reappear in the Middle Ages. According to Irish chronicles, ships appeared in the sky over Clonmacnoise in 721 AD. Ships complete with their crews were observed again in the same region in 746. Much later, Hieronymus Bosch unobtrusively paints a few in the sky on the left-hand and central panels of his triptych of Temptation of Saint Anthony. Miniaturist Guillaume Leroy depicts an early 16th-century allegorical Ship of Fortune with a wing in the place of sails, though he has seen fit to set it afloat on water and not in the sky.
Wings of course, from Icarus onwards, were well-known in myth, though perilous and often disastrous. Which didn’t stop the enterprising and foolhardy from trying for real.
According to one account, in 852 AD a Moor named Armen Firman constructed a voluminous cloak stiffened with wooden struts and leaped from a tower in Cordoba. Firman was successful – his injuries were minor.
In 875 AD an Andalusian polymath Abbas ibn-Firnas “covered himself with feathers for the purpose, …attached a couple of wings to his body, and getting on an eminence, flung himself into the air.” Like most would-be Icari, his landing was a hard one. “...not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.” Ibn-Firnas severely injured his back (he was, after all, a respectable if temerarious 65 years of age at the time). He also invented a water clock and corrective lenses, and remained firmly earthbound thereafter. There is a statue of him at the entry to Baghdad International Airport.
Daedalus even inspired the Vikings; a story dating from around 885 ascribes a winged escape from an island prison to the Norse hero Wayland the Smith. His brother Egil was less successful, and crashed when he inaccurately judged the wind.
Medieval historian William of Malmsbury recounts the exploits of the Benedictine monk Eilmer (also of Malmesbury), who leaped from a tower and managed a furlong with wings affixed to his hands and feet around the year 1010 AD, but broke his legs upon landing and was lame thereafter.
Leonardo’s da Vinci energetically designed flying machines centuries ahead of his time, though they were of course impractical with the materials at hand. The great Leonardo scribbled over 500 sketches of aerial contraptions, including plans for a primitive helicopter, or “airscrew”. He did, however refrain from throwing himself off high places with anything fanciful attached.
According to a local tale, a blacksmith named Johanson constructed wings and launched himself successfully off the church steeple of the little Latvian town of Priekule Zvierdis in the late 1600’s. His exploit was rather less well received by the local Lutheran authorities; he was denounced as an acolyte of Satan and burned at the stake.
In 1638, legendary Ottoman engineer Hezârfen Ahmed Çeleb launched himself from the Galata Tower of Constantinople and made it across the Bosphorus, a flight of some two miles. For this, he laid claim to a reward of 1000 gold dinars and one of history’s first channel crossings. According to Evliya Çelebi, who wrote in the late 1600’s: “First he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydani eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind. Then, as Sultan Murad Khan was watching from the Sinan Pasha mansion at Sarayburnu, he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower and landed in the Doğancılar square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: ‘This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people,’ and thus sent him to Algeria in exile. He died there”.
Left: Triptych of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Hieronymus Bosch, 1505, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal
Centre: The Ship of Fortune by François de Moulins, miniature by Guillaume Leroy, 1510. The miniature shows the author adroitly posed atop the mast of the ship of Fortune, composing his treatise.
Right: Icarus and his descendants
A. Daedalus and Icarus escape, engraving by Jean Bouchet, 1500s
B. The Fall of Icarus, Jan Breughel the Elder,
D. Daedalus and Icarus, Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, 1869
E. Lament For Icarus, Herbert Draper, exhibited in 1898
F. Greek postage stamp
G. Stained glass window showing Eilmer, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1920
H. The Flying Tailor poses for the camera in his ill-inspired and ill-fated flying suit.
I. Statue of Abbas ibn-Firnas, Baghdad International Airport.
However, with the dawn of the Enlightenment and the expansion of science, it all suddenly appeared not just fanciful and mythological, but plausible.
More than a century before the Montgolfier brothers, Francesco Lana-Terzi (1631-1687), a Jesuit priest and professor of mathematics in Ferrara, Italy, took his ideas to the drawing board. In his treatise Prodromo: Overo, Saggio di alcune inventioni
nuove premesso all’Arte maestra” published in 1670, Lana describes an airship that would be raised by four spheres of wafer-thin copper from which the air had been evacuated. Lana never built his air ship, explaining “... that God would surely never allow such a machine to be successful, since it would create many disturbances in the civil and political governments of mankind. Where is the man who can fail to see that no city would be proof against his surprise, as the ships at any time could be maneuvered over its public squares and houses? Fortresses, and cities could thus be destroyed, with the certainty that the aerial ship could come to no harm, as iron weights, fireballs and bombs could be hurled from a great height.”
He concluded, apparently without irony, that he would have willingly built such a ship:”... before publishing these my inventions, had not my vows of poverty prevented my expending 100 ducats , which sum at least would be required to satisfy so laudable a curiosity”.
In “L’Histoire comique contenant les états et empires du soleil”, also published in 1670, Cyrano de Bergerac has Dyrcona escape from Toulouse aboard a vessel only fractionally less fanciful, powered by a sail and an icosahedron mounted atop what looks suspiciously like a TARDIS telephone booth – Diderot meets Doctor Who.
Left: Lana’s Flying Machine
A. Francesco Lana-Terzi’s “Prodromo: Overo, Saggio di alcune inventioni
nuove premesso all’Arte maestra”, Brescia,1670. The musical notations on the facing page are part of a system of ciphers proposed by the Jesuit polymath.
B. Engraving of Lana-Terzi’s airship from a German publication
C. English engraving: An Air Balloon, 1st March 1789, published by John Sewell
D. Lana’s Flying Machine, from ‘Wonderful Balloon Ascents or the Conquest of the Skies’, by Fulgence Marion, published circa 1870
E. “Flying Ship” of Francesco de Lana, W. D. & H. O. Wills’s cigarette card, circa1909-1912
Centre: Illustration from “L’Histoire comique contenant les états et empires du soleil”, one of the first-ever science fiction novels, by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-55). The story is a first-hand account of travels to the Sun and the Moon, and the societies the narrator discovers. The content was judged scandalous at the time; a carefully expurgated edition was only published after the author’s death.
Portrait of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Right: A Flying Ship, from Issue No. 56 of the Evening Post, 20-22nd December, 1709
In an issue of the London Evening Post, dated December 20-22nd 1709, readers may have raised a quizzical eyebrow or two at this article:
‘Father Bartholomew Laurent says that he has found out an Invention, by the Help of which one may more speedily travel through the Air than any other Way either by Sea or Land, so that one may go 200 Miles in 24 Hours; send Orders and Conclusions of Councils to Generals, in a manner, as soon as they are determined in private Cabinets; which will be so much the more Advantageous to your Majesty, as your Dominions lie far remote from one another, and which for want of Councils cannot be maintained nor augmented in Revenues and Extent.
Merchants may have their Merchandize, and send Letters and Packets more conveniently. Places besieged may be Supply’d with Necessaries and Succours. Moreover, we may transport out of such Places what we please, and the Enemy cannot hinder it:
The Portuguese have Discovered unknown Countries bordering upon the Extremity of the Globe: And it will contribute to their greater Glory to be Authors of so Admirable a Machine, which so many nations have in vain attempted.
Many Misfortunes and Shipwrecks have happened for want of Maps, but by this Invention the Earth will be more exactly Measur’d than ever, besides many other Advantages worthy of your Majesty’s Encouragement.
But to prevent the many Disorders that may be occasioned by the Usefulness of this Machine, Care is to be taken that the Use and full Power over the same be committed to one Person only, to whom your Majesty will please to give a strict Command, that whoever shall presume to transgress the Orders herein mentioned shall be Severely punished.
May it please your Majesty to grant your humble Petitioner the Priviledge that no Person shall presume to Use, or make this Ship, without the Express Licence of the Petitioner, and his Heirs, under the Penalty of the loss and Forfeiture of all his Lands and ,Goods, so that one half of the same may belong to the Petitioner, and the other to the Informer. And this to be executed throughout all your Dominions upon the Transgressors, without Exception or Distinction of Persons, who likewise may be declared liable to an Arbitrary punishment, &c.’
Of this much-vaunted invention an engraving is given in the same newspaper, and is here presented to the reader, who may probably be equally amused by the figure delineated, and the explanation of its uses, as subjoined.
An Explanation of the Figure.
A. Represents the Sails wherewith the Air is to be divided, which turn as they are directed.
B. The Stern to govern the Ship, that She may not run at random.
C. The Body of the Ship, which is formed at both ends Scollopwise; in the concavity of Each is a pair of Bellows, which must be blown when there is no Wind.
D. Two Wings which keep the Ship upright.
E. The Globes of Heaven and Earth containing in them Attractive Virtues. They are of Metal, and serve for a Cover to two Loadstones, placed in them upon the Pedestals, to draw the Ship after them, the Body of which is of Thin Iron Plates, covered with Straw Mats, for conveniency of 10 or 11 men besides the Artist.
F. A cover made of Iron Wire in form of a Net, on which are Fastened a good number of Large Amber Beads, which by a Secret Operation will help to keep the Ship Aloft. And by the Sun’s heat the aforesaid Mats that line the Ship will be drawn towards the Amber Beads.
G. The Artist who by the help of the Celestial Globe, a Sea Map, and Compass, takes the Height of the Sun, thereby to find out the spot of Land over which they are on the Globe of the Earth.
H. The Compass to direct them in their Way.
I. The Pulleys and Ropes that serve to hoist or Furl the Sails.
Bartolomeu de Gusmão (the Father Bartholomew Laurent from the London article) presented his most curious petition to King John V of Portugal, soliciting a privilege - the 18th-century equivalent of a patent - for his invention of the airship. According to contemporary witnesses, Gusmão made modest flights from hilltops with his invention; but a public test of the machine, which was set for June 24, never took place.
Despite all logic, leaping off high places with wings attached remained in vogue for two centuries more. The “Flying Tailor” Franz Reichelt attempted a flight off the first platform of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in February 1912. His contraption failed and he plummeted some 190 feet to his death. Watching the footage of his last moments (what an opportunity for the cinematographer!), where he works his way prudently out on a girder and finally leaps off, it is hard to imagine what must have been happening in his mind. You want to reach out, grab him firmly by the arm and steer him back to safety. As for the competent authorities, they did nothing of the sort, except rush his broken corpse to a local hospital.
Once man had actually achieved flight, largely due to a fuller understanding of the nature of air, however, air ships became ship-shaped once more; Purely “scientific” fantasy flying ships become whimsical and fanciful, contraptions à la Professor Branestawm, and filed a separate flight plan.
Gustave Doré depicts the Baron of Munchausen aiming for the moon at the helm of a conventional sailing ship, conventional except for the fact it can travel through space. Magic was back. (And back to stay, though even with fantasy, we live in a scientific age, partitioning the ineffable into genres: fantasy plain, high, historical or heroic, steampunk, faerie, and more.)
Left: Baron Munchausen sets sail for the Moon. Woodcut by Gustave Doré for “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen” by Rudolph Erich Raspe, 1862
Centre: Flights of Whimsy
A. “Poisson Aerostatique”, engraving by Jacques Chereau, 10th March 1784
B. “Le Veritable navigateur aerien: Aerostat en forme de navire”, French, 18th century
C. “The engineer of the Leviathan finding, in the course of a dream, the means to propel his ship.” Lithograph by Honoré Daumier, published by the Maison Martinet, 19th century.
D. “La Minerve: Vaisseau Aérien destiné aux Découvertes” Engraving dated 1803.
E. “Aerostate de Poste”, an early version of air mail. This may seem whimsical, but Bill Bryson recounts, in his inimitable and irreverent memoire “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”, that in 1959, the United States Postal Service experimented with sending air mail by missile. The Postmaster General declared the operation “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”, and optimistically predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” One hopes delivery was not directly to one’s door.
F. Moon Carriage, from “Altre Scoverte Fatte Nella Luna dal Sigr. Herschel”, Leopoldo Galuzza & Gaetano Dura, Naples, 1836. Extraordinary discoveries were credited to Herschel – without his knowledge – and hoaxes flourished on both sides of the Atlantic.
G. Flying ship, cartoon from an edition of Barker’s Komic Picture Souvenir, circa 1906. But where indeed is the Captain’s pet owl?
H. “A New Prospective Way of Crossing the Atlantic Ocean” – and for selling Barker’s products for practically every imaginable complaint. We grouse about invasive advertising now, back in the “good old days” it was not so different.
Right: Illustrations by Léon Benett for “Robur-le-Conquérant”, from Jules Verne’s “Les Voyages Extraordinaires”, published in 1886. (It is also known under the title ‘Clipper of the Clouds’, from the first British edition of 1887, Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London.)
Cover illustration by Don Perlin for a Classics Illustrated edition of Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror. (I devoured these comics when I was young, and shudder in retrospect at the massacre of graphic mediocrity and literary abridgement they constituted. Not in the remotest way did they instill in my young mind a predisposition for the “classics” themselves. I know that they are now ardently collected, which just goes to show that nostalgia has little to do with quality, simply with relative caducity.)
Jules Verne has many flying ships, but they are of the modern kind, bristling with propellors and sheathed in sheet metal. Many of the illustrations for Verne’s copious opus are by the prolific and sure hand of Léon Benett (1839-1917), who provided woodcuts for more than half of the 5 dozen novels that make up Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires, nearly 2000 in all. (His real name was Benet - with one “t” - but he added another “t” so that his name would not be indentical to the French word for simpleton.) Benett also illustrated books by Hugo, Erkmann Chatrian, Tolstoy and Camille Flammarion, among others.
The Flying Dutchman flies before the storm, not through the airs, though the legend, which is of curiously undetermined and foggy origins (as befits a ghost ship) has inspired some haunting imagery. (The only painter who depicts the Dutchman in full flight is Carl Barks; whether he had his tongue set as firmly in his cheek as his rudder is set skyward is impossible to fathom.)
Left: The Flying Dutchman
A. The Flying Dutchman, Albert Pinkham Ryder, circa 1887
B. The Flying Dutchman, anonymous engraving
C. The Flying Dutchman, woodcut by Elbridge Kingsley, copy after Albert Pinkham Ryder, published in 1887
D. The Flying Dutchman, from an old German print.
E. The Flying Dutchman, by Hermann Hendrich
F. The Flying Dutchamn finally takes to the air. Painting by Carl Barks (1901 – 2000)
Centre: Flights of Fancy
A. Illustration by Florence Harrison for “Elfin Song”, a book of verse published in 1912 by Blackie and Son, Ltd. A ship between water and aether.
B. The Simpleton discovers the flying ship, illustration by H. J. Ford (1844 – 1912) from “The Flying Ship”, a Russian fairy tale published in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, Longmans, Green & Co., London & New York, 1906
C. The comrades in the flying ship meet the drinker
D. Navies of Barsoom, illustration from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels
E. Painting by J. Allen St. John for Burroughs’ “The Gods of Mars”
F. Frank Frazetta’s much-imitated but never equaled Galleon, itself following in the wake of a stirring genre of its own
Right: Illustrations from William M. Timlin’s “The Ship that Sailed to Mars”, George G. Harrap and Company Limited, London, November 1923
Other flying ships, which owe little to logic and much to fantasy, take flight in illustration’s Golden Age, under the delicate brush of Florence Harrison, or the deft strokes of H. J. Ford’s pen illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship”, published in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book, in 1906. (Arthur Ransome, he of the well-known but recognizably terrestrial sailing stories for children, through his experiences as Russian correspondent/journalist around the time of the Great War and the revolution, also included this story in his own book ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ (1916). The accompanying illustrations are sadly rather prosaic, with the depicted ship remaining stubbornly anchored on the waves rather than in the clouds.)
But perhaps no one more than South African architect William M. Timlin, in his magisterial and little-known book The Ship That Sailed to Mars, allies the wonder and elegance of the flying sailing ship. Timlin’s extraordinary book was published in 1923*. Only 2000 copies were printed. It is now as rare - and expensive - as it is beautiful and unique.
In many ways, flying ships might embody the path of myth-imagery of that particular sort that removes well-known objects from their milieu and sets them by magic in another. Carpets, boots, creatures, chariots, portals, wardrobes, all these are invitations out of familiar into the often perilous realm of faerie or the future (or the past, which has its own set of perils and rewards). The familiar vessel or garment eases the transition, the short step, though, has hidden consequences; one sets foot on the carpet or pulls on the boots, one climbs the gangplank to a seemingly ordinary deck, but instead of sailing with the tide, the prow is soon silhouetted against the stars.
Archetypically, they are the snares or the embassies of the gods, to lure or invite mortals to their realms, or to pass between worlds. Icarus, though, proves that pride and fall are act and consequence, one is not intended to fly without prior consent from those same gods. Christianity moralizes and diabolizes; flight is the province of the Devil, and witches are his stewardesses. Best to be a monk, or to be blessed with tolerant authorities if one wishes to take to the airs. Flight again enters the realm of the possible after the Renaissance, first in the obsessive doodling of an aging genius, then by fits and starts over the next few centuries. The Victorian Age sees ships in the skies, but with gears, steam and pulleys, not with magic, though magic does reassert its power and discards modernity in favour of a more romantic age, and from Illustration’s Golden Age another archetype emerges; the sky-sailing galleon, sails filled with solar wind, keel trailing stardust.
It is an image of exceptional evocative power, an archetype of transition and embodied disembodiment without mysticism or religious connotation, but evoking something simpler, something without the trappings of adulthood. The dreamlike quality is equally important; in the unfettered state of sleep, the mind could indeed take ship amongst those stars.
“…Give me the ships, with sails adapted to the heavenly wind; there will be fearless people, even if they face the immensity.” Eager Kepler was stargazing, suspecting he was before an immensity whose existence he could not yet prove, and poised to rearrange the visible universe. Give me the same ships, with sails adapted to the heavenly wind, and there will always be the quintessential reminder that when we were children without knowledge we knew many, many things about the universe, and instinctively understood our place within it. As adults, we easily forget: there is nothing childish about a sense of wonder and magic.
“White-sailed amain, till lost from view.
Cloud chases cloud across the blue
And shadow ships the race renew
Thanks to friend and colleague Nghiem Ta of Templar Publishing, for being there at liftoff when the idea took flight; thanks to Graeme Skinner for helping unearth much lofty imagery, and special thanks to Ann Carling for keeping a sharp eye from the crow’s-nest.
*The Ship That Sailed to Mars will be republished this autumn, by Dover Books’ imprint Calla Editions. With a new introduction. Of which, more in September.
† Excerpt from “Shadowland” by P. Morgan Watkins, Pall Mall Magazine, vol. V, January 1895
Posted by John on 15/07/11 | 07:00 PM | Chronicles
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