For thousands of years, men and women have looked at birds soaring overhead and dreamed that they might one day join them.
In the Middle Ages, a monk named Oliver crafted a glider with two wings. With the contraption strapped to his back, he leaped from a tower, sailed “125 paces,” and fell heavily to the earth, breaking both legs. Marco Polo told stories of Chinese who rode in giant kites.
Leonardo da Vinci, the great Italian thinker of the sixteenth century, left sketchbooks full of flying machines, including a rough plan for a parachute.
In the 1670s, a French locksmith named Besnier tried to fly by pumping two poles with flaps over his shoulders. He, too, fell to the earth. In 1670, a Jesuit priest named Francisco de Lana Terzi concluded from experiments that air has weight.
Therefore, he theorized, it could be possible to construct a craft with a huge globe that was lighter than air, a balloon.