The first known serious flight attempt in world history occurred about a thousand years before the Wright brothers, in western England. Then, a young Benedictine monk leapt with a crude pair of cloth wings from a watchtower of a church abbey at the beginning of the 11th century. This monk, known to history as Eilmer of Malmesbury, covered a furlong – a distance of approximately 600 feet – before landing heavily and breaking both legs. Afterwards, he remarked that the cause of his crash was that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.
We know of Eilmer’s attempt through the writings of a historian, William of Malmesbury, who mentions the flight in passing. Of more interest to William was that Eilmer, late in his life, was the first person to spot a comet, which people then credited as being an omen of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror.
Eilmer typified the inquisitive spirit of medieval enthusiasts who developed small drawstring toy helicopters, windmills, and sophisticated sails for boats. ...
Given the geography of the Abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, he must have remained airborne about 15 seconds. At low altitude he apparently attempted to flap the wings, which threw him out of control. His post-flight assessment qualifies him as the first test pilot, for he sought to understand, in technological terms, what happened on the flight and why he crashed.
Read the whole thing.
[HT: Sean Dailey via Fr. Z. via Daniel Matsui]