One of the Earliest Airplanes Flew in Poland in 1648

Polish invention airplane

A drawing of Burattini’s “flying dragon.”

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.

Sources

>> Inżynierowie Polsce w XIX I XX Wieku
>> Latający smok i amfibia, czyli jak Władysław IV o księżycu konferował

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3 thoughts on “One of the Earliest Airplanes Flew in Poland in 1648

  1. While I applaud your intention of making people aware of Polish accomplishments, this description of flight in 1646 can only be described as a bad Polish Joke.
    Let me explain what I drew from your description:
    We have an Italian immigrant to Poland (great!). He was not the first to have an idea about human flight, nor about human powered flight.
    He postulated about building a replica of the Wawel Dragon (a charming story). This dragon would have a crew of 2 people who would power the wings through a system of levers and springs (nothing new here, and it never worked before or since). It would also have a parachute attached which would ensure a soft landing. Presumably he never attempted to fly (or even build) this device .
    What he did build was a smaller prototype, powered by levers, wheels, and springs, put a cat inside (presumably the cat would operate the machinery), and launched it by pulling a string. OF COURSE IT FLEW ! What is described is a catapault (no pun intended). These have been used for centuries as war machines.
    This can in no way be described as flight!
    The idea of a parachute to ensure a safe landing may have some merit, however it had already been postulated by Leonardo da Vinci a century before. It may have worked for the first cat launch, but I suspect the second time the cat did not survive, and more reasonable minds prevailed.
    Please think things through before posting any more nonsense.

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    • It would have been nonsense had it been made up, which it wasn’t. I appreciate your critiques. The purpose was to generate awareness of a little known attempt at flight in 17th century Poland. I, and many other people, are aware that Leonardo da Vinci and others had postulated similar ideas before. This is a blog focused on Polish topics, and I make clear that others had theorized about flight in previous centuries.

      Burattini did not set out to engineer a catapult; he very clearly sought to engineer a flying device. What this contraption ended up being in reality isn’t super clear from the available source material, but I’m reporting what is there. It is even described as one of the earliest attempts at flight by an exhibit at a Warsaw cultural center: http://dsh.waw.pl/

      It wasn’t a jet plane, but it’s sure an interesting story that English-speakers might otherwise never hear.

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      • I do appreciate what you are trying to do. However, I do object to the clearly incorrect title of ” One of the Earliest Airplanes Flew in Poland in 1648″. If it were titled something like “Early attempt at flight in Poland, 1648” I could accept it for what it is: an amusing and interesting piece of history.

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