You've seen Leonardo da Vinci's plans for flying machines, but the Renaissance man wasn't actually the first European to design a contraption that would give man the power of flight. That honor goes to Eilmer of Malmesbury, a British monk who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries. In fact, Eilmer did da Vinci one better: whereas the famous Italian artist seems to have merely sketched imaginary gliders and wings, Eilmer actually built his and tested it out on himself.

We know about Eilmer's flight thanks to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, who lived about a century after the courageous monk. As William wrote,

[Eilmer] was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.

Having trouble picturing Eilmer's daring feat? Check out a Smithsonian Channel-produced dramatization below. As Tobias Capwell, a historian featured in the video clip, puts it, "[Eilmer] hadn't quite worked out the landing bit, but the flying bit he seems to have understood quite well.


Featured image via British Council Film