History Behind The Card: Besnier
Card #27 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Jacob Besnier, 16XX? – 16XX?, Sable, France
This one may be a myth, or it may be real… but it is a story about gliding, and may be one of the earliest successes of it.
Wills’s card #27 is lacking in detail. Jacob Besnier was a locksmith in France, who in 1678 created a means for gliding.
Although there is some doubt as to the validity of his claim, there is at least one documented eye-witness account.
Take it as you will, but here is what is known of Besnier and his place in aviation history.
Influenced by Leonardo DaVinci, Besnier sought to fly by emulating birds. To that extent he created a pair of wood and taffeta wings that were worn over his back. Attached to his feet and hands by rope, the wings would allow him to flap that would enable him to flap by pulling it would open flat on the downstroke and fold up vertically on the upstroke.
While Besnier may have attempted to fly from the ground by vigorously flapping his arms, he realized he might have better luck jumping from a height and letting the wings carry him.
The first jump was from a window sill on the first floor; the second from a second-story window; followed by an attempt from the attic garret near the roof.
According to Besnier, the tests were a success as he apparently soared aloft like a bird describing perhaps the first successful glider before crossing a river and safely landing on the ground.
According to an eyewitness and recorded in the Journal de Paris on December 12, 1678: “The ‘wings’ are oblong frames, covered with taffeta, and attached to the ends of two rods, adjusted on the shoulders The wings work up and down. Those in front are worked by the hands; those behind by the feet, which are connected with the ends of the rods by strings. The movements were such that when the right hand made the right wing descend in front, the left foot made the left wing descend behind; and in like manner the left hand in front and the right foot behind acted together simultaneously. This diagonal action appeared very well contrived; it was the action of most quadrupeds as well as of man when walking; but the contrivance, like others of the same kind, failed in not being fitted with gearing to enable the air traveller to proceed in any other direction than that in which the wind blew him. The inventor first flew down from a stool, then from a table, afterwards from a window, and finally from a garret, from which he passed above the houses in the neighbourhood, and then, moderating the working of his machine, he descended slowly to the earth.”
The image above says 1673… and the image below offers 1679… but all other accounts do offer the date of 1678…
We can dismiss the 1679 date… after all, the story of the event was already published in 1678! So… we are left with the 1673 date from the woodblock print, or the Journal de Paris news from 1678… which does NOT say WHEN the glide supposedly happened, only that it did.
I’m pretty sure Besnier didn’t really glide… so how much stock can we put on the event’s date, or even the Journal de Paris circa 1678?
So what happened after his flight?
Apparently he had the good sense to sell his apparatus to a traveling sideshow and never flew or glided again.
Despite the lack of hard evidence, the mere fact that Besnier decided not to fly again makes me wonder ‘why?’
The first man to fly or glide like a bird would certainly want to do it again. Also… if he sold his gliding device to someone else, we’d have someone else’s story to tell – unless they crashed and died… and thus, with a failure, there is no great tale to tell.
By the way… I love how, in the three different depictions presented here… Besnier looks different… in the Wills’s card, he has a moustache and long hair, while the other two share the same hairstyle.
But the socks! Which one reminds you of the Wicked Witch of the East?
As the Wills’s card depicts: Besnier… Take it for what it is…