Fly Like a Bird: Carl Friederich Meerwein's Die Kunst zu Fliegen nach Art der Vögel

Our most recent acquisition is Die Kunst zu Fliegen nach Art der Vögel, a wonderful early book on mechanical flight by Carl Friederich Meerwein (1737-1810), architect and engineer to the Prince of Baden and an early aeronautical theorist and experimenter. In this volume he discusses “how to fly in the manner of birds. First, he argues that humans cannot fly like birds because of issues such as their anatomy and gravity. However, he did believe that machines could be constructed, using rotors, which could fly and be steered” (Lynn, The Sublime Invention, p. 55).

Meerwein’s contribution to the study of flight was to derive the size of the wings needed to lift a human. The flying apparatus he designed, and which is illustrated in the two engravings in this volume, consisted of “two light wooden frames (shaped, when outspread, like the longitudinal section of a spindle) covered with calico, hinged at the centre, and affording a slightly concave surface of 111 feet. Meerwein was probably the first to calculate the area of wing surface necessary to support a man, and taking as a basis the weight and wing area of a wild duck, he laid down that a man with his machine weighing 200lb. would require about 126 square feet - an estimate the approximate accuracy of which was verified by [Otto] Lilienthal. But Meerwein’s attempt to experiment with his machine at Giessen was not successful - indeed it would have been impossible to work the wings with anything like sufficient rapidity to raise himself from the ground” (Hodgson, The History of Aeronautics in Great Britain, p. 44).

Meerwein’s book is rare - we can only locate copies in the British Library and the Bavarian State Library, and only one appears in auction records. This is an attractive copy in the original wrappers (with some repairs to the spine) and with the plates in excellent, fresh condition. An evocative record of man's quest for flight.


Laura Massey
Laura Massey


Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.

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