Today, we mix a magic drink for Daedalus and
Icarus. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Why are the lines from
The Wizard of Oz so compelling:
The myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus
also lays its strong hand on our elemental craving to
fly. Daedalus was a mythical Greek architect and
sculptor. When he offended Minos, the King of Crete,
Minos threw him and Icarus into prison. Daedalus made
wings of wax and feathers. He and Icarus used the
wings to fly to Sicily and to freedom. In some
versions, Icarus flies too high -- too close to the
sun. The wax melts and he falls to his death. Rockets
have carried us free of the earth; but no one's come
close to duplicating Daedalus's flight under his own
Somewhere, over the rainbow ...
Birds fly ...
Why then, Oh why, can't I?
In 1985 a team of engineers from MIT set themselves
a more modest objective, but a fearsome one
nevertheless. They set out to fly from Crete -- not
to Sicily, 500 miles away -- but to the island of
Santorini, 74 miles north of Crete. But even that
was over three times the existing world record for
They built an airplane, not of wax and feathers,
but of carbon-fiber composites and plastics. And a
wild machine it was! It gave a whole new meaning to
the word "spindly." It's wingspan outreached the
Boeing 727's, but it weighed only 70 pounds. Of
course, they named it Daedalus.
The most serious problem was human endurance. The
team carefully studied anatomy and metabolism. They
did extensive testing of 24 men and one woman and
finally gave the nod to a Greek bicycle champion,
Kanellos Kanellopoulos. Now he'd have to burn up
his body energy at the rate of one kilowatt for
four hours running.
To sustain him on the trip, the team developed a
special drink -- one that would maintain balances
of glucose, sodium, carbohydrates, electrolytes,
and water. Kanellopoulos would have to drink about
a gallon of the stuff during the flight.
Armed with this witch's brew, he made it in April,
1988 -- 74 miles in four hours -- a remarkable
world's record. Only one thing marred the success.
As the plane approached the coast of Santorini, a
powerful crosswind caught it and snapped its tail
boom. It splashed down safely, just 30 feet from
the shore. This Daedalus seems to have
carried a little of Icarus with it.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, we crave to fly.
Somehow, leaving engines behind gives us back the
magic -- the myth -- that we so crave to reclaim.
And, someday, inventive minds will find a way to
make Daedalus's flight all the way to Sicily -- all
the way from myth to reality.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gorman, C., On the Wings of Mythology. Time,
May 2, 1988, p. 67.
Kluger, J., Human-Powered Flight. Discover,
Vol. 10, January 1989, pp. 70-71.
Langford, J. S., Triumph of Daedalus. National
Geographic, Vol. 174, August 1988, pp. 190-199.
Peterson, I., On a Wing and a Pedal. Science
News, Vol. 133, April 30, 1988, p. 277.
For more on Daedelus, and picture, see the website:
This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1634.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
To see Daedalus, now hanging in
the Boston Museum of Natural History, click on the
thumbnail image to the right.
Episode | Search Episodes |