A priestly project to fly

  • [17–], Lisbon, (Portugal)
  • 1 page of a bound volume of 204 pages, paper; dimension of the design:
  • 21,6 x 30,0 x cm;
  • book: 22,5×47,0×2,0 cm
  • Portuguese National Archive of Torre do Tombo
  • Ref Code: PT/TT/MSLIV/1011

The idea of human flight has fired our imagination since antiquity. A constant theme for writers and artists, it also fascinated inventors and scientists.

In 1709 a young Jesuit priest called Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão petitioned the Portuguese King, John V, for the right to construct a vehicle to move in the sky. According to Gusmão, his vehicle would be able to fly for more than two hundred leagues over sea or land. Besides its obvious military application, the vehicle could also reach the regions near the poles of the world, thus adding further glory to the King of Portugal. The King was obviously interested by the idea and just a few days afterwards, on 17 April 1709, authorised the construction, granting exclusive rights to the Jesuit father.

Outlandish stories featuring amazing machines, mingled with gossip and sarcasm, spread very quickly. It wasn’t long before a picture of the supposed flying apparatus appeared, showing a remarkable vehicle inspired by the anatomy of a bird. The supposed flying machine was given certain scientific gravitas by the inclusion of scientific instruments on board, such as globes and a telescope.

As it happens, Gusmão actual proposal was much more modest, but also more realistic. A few months later, in August 1709, he was allowed to make a demonstration of his projects at the Royal Court, in front of the King, Queen and all dignitaries of the country. What Gusmão did on that occasion was demonstrate the flight of a hot air balloon, using a small prototype to show that it was able to fly. The balloon rose in front of the spectators, eventually reaching the ceiling of the room, where it had to be rapidly destroyed in order not to start a fire.

It appears Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão performed demonstrations with hot air balloons on some other occasions, but his projects didn’t go much further. Many decades later, the French Montgolfier brothers finally achieved successful balloon flight. Gusmão plans were soon forgotten, one more episode in the long list of heroic and ingenious attempts to take flight.