Every school kid knows that the Wright brothers built the first successful airplane in 1903 and invented modern aviation. That doesn’t mean they were the first to try. If you happened to be in Warsaw during February 1648 and looked up, you might have seen a cat flying a mechanical dragon.
Wait. What? Let’s back up a little.
At that time, there happened to be an Italian inventor living in Warsaw named Titus Livius Burattini (Latin names were common then). Burattini had been born in Agordo, Italy in 1617 but had come to Poland in his twenties. He spent some time in Krakow before moving to Warsaw in 1646.
Burattini was a scientist and inventor who always had his eyes on the skies. Upon first arriving to Warsaw, he spent his days constructing telescopes and making astronomical observations. He even crafted lenses that fitted the telescope of renowned Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius.
Among Burattini’s interests was the concept of flight. Man had dreamed of flying since ancient times. As early as 400 BC, the Greek scientist Archytas had constructed a primitive mechanical flying device. Of course, no one had yet demonstrated that it was possible to build a machine that could fly people. The Montgolfier brothers would not invent the hot air balloon until the 1780s, and the Wright brothers were more than 200 years away.
The “Flying Dragon”
In 1647, Burattini wrote a treatise entitled “Flight is Not Impossible as Previously Commonly Believed.” In it he presented various theories on how humans could fly, including one that he put into practice.
Burattini conceptualized an ornithopter, which is an airplane that flies by flapping its wings, much like a bird or insect. However, his ornithopter would be shaped like a dragon with several sets of wings: two main wings on each side, four on top and two toward the front (perhaps his inspiration came from Poland’s famous Wawel Dragon). The device would seat a crew of two people, who would alternate operating the wings through a system of levers and springs. The tail would act as a rudder.
This “flying dragon” would be made of wood and whalebone and covered in fabric. It would include a parachute attached to the hull to soften the landing should the wings fail. The hull was even supposed to double as a boat in case the device landed in water.
To demonstrate to Wladyslaw IV, King of Poland, that the project warranted official funding, Burattini built a simplified, roughly 5-foot-long model powered by a system of levers, wheels and springs. In February 1648, Burattini put a cat inside this miniature “flying dragon,” and set it off with the pull of a string. Sources imply that the first test flight occurred without incident, but the device crashed during the second flight (hopefully the cat had some of its nine lives to spare).
A few months after the crash, Burattini built another model, designed for easy disassembly, which he sent to France for study. After that, Burattini seemingly abandoned his dream of building a successful flying machine, or at least the sources are quiet on the matter.
Burattini’s “flying dragon” is a footnote in the history of flight (I couldn’t even find any English-language sources documenting the device). However, it speaks to the talent and ingenuity coming out of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although he wasn’t Polish, Burattini’s experiments were made possible in Poland thanks to a culture of intellectualism and discovery.
Obviously, the “flying dragon” failed in the long run. But, for a brief moment in 1648, the skies of Warsaw were 300 years ahead of their time.