Looking Backward Like Looking Forward

YOUR TURN

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I was talking with Leonardo da Vinci the other day. No, not the one who lived in Italy during the Renaissance, the present-day Leonardo da Vinci who lives right across the street from me in Pine.

Yes, he's a direct descendant, so he tells me, and as it happens we were talking about his illustrious ancestor.

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Drawing of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine.

My friend Leonardo had read a lot about the immense scope of his ancestor's achievements -- painting, sculpture, civil and military engineering, anatomy, geology, biology, mathematics, physics, mapmaking, lens grinding, even flight.

"Do you think he really invented all those things they say he invented?" he asked me.

I told him I did believe it and we went on talking. As we talked, it occurred to me that I could have a little fun by ordering a working model of one of the Renaissance Leonardo inventions and letting our more modern Leonardo watch it run.

Or perhaps I should say, "Watch it fly," because that's what it does. It's what is known as an ornithopter, a word related to the more common term, helicopter. A helicopter flies by rotating its wings. Its name comes from helix, meaning rotary, plus opter, meaning wing. Ornithopter comes from ornith, as in ornithology, the study of birds, plus opter, or wing, and means an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings like a bird.

I had purchased and flown a flying model of an ornithopter many years ago while in England. It was a French-built model made of a wire frame with thin, flexible plastic wings, and flew quite well.

I knew of a source for an updated version of the same thing, the same French design, now built in China of French and Chinese components, so I ordered one.

After it arrived, my son David and I took it out in the field behind the house and flew it. It is powered by a rubber band and actually flies by flapping its flexible plastic wings. We had some trouble at first because of a stiff wind which was blowing on and off, but by waiting for a momentary lull we watched our birdlike model plane fly beautifully, flapping its way high into the air and then gliding back down to a gentle landing.

I walked across the street, got hold of our present-day Leonardo, and invited him to see something his ancestor had invented back in 1488. The two of us went out back in the field and the ornithopter again flew beautifully, climbing from 25 to 35 feet in the air before circling around and gliding down to a smooth, soft landing.

Our present-day Leonardo was nothing less than thrilled. After watching a few soaring flights between brisk gusts of wind, he told me he just had to own and fly one himself. I gave him the address of the company, which for the information of anyone out there who wants one is: American Science and Surplus, P.O. Box 1030, Skokie, IL 60076, or call (888) 724-7587. Item Number 88566. $9.95.

Let's see -- 1488 to 2006 -- that's five-hundred and eighteen years ago. I understand that scientists are just now getting around to making a serious study of the flight of birds the way Leonardo did so long ago. Who knows? Perhaps someday in the future the folks up here in Pine will be saying, "I think I'll flap down to Payson and pick up a pizza for supper."

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