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So I'm writing a thing about the adventures of a guy living in an alternate history version of Earth in the 15th century, where a genius invents hot air balloons in the 14th century, along with workable parachutes. What I'm wondering is, how could the protagonist accidentally invent the hang glider? Or any other sort of gliding thing made to work with one or more passengers?

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    $\begingroup$ Da Vinci did theorize and produce a blueprint of a Glider. Though there are no records of any attempted experiments (at least not that I could find) $\endgroup$ – Oak Nov 1 '15 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ Da Vinci also theorized a parachute. Various parties have proven the design is feasible. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 20 at 17:22
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Or, to follow along with what you have given us, perhaps the protagonist finds a need to use his parachute and during his descent grabs hold of the lines in an effort to steer and finds himself accelerating forward, maybe because one of the lines is tangled creating a different shape. This might give him the idea to play with the shape of the parachute leading to a more modern design and then through experimentation to the wing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Only recently have parachutes become steerable (ram air parachutes). It's very unlikely that any kind of line-over situation on a round parachute could accidentally lead to a steerable parachute. The designs are very different. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 28 '15 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Well yeah, but he's also inventing balloon flights 400 years before it actually happened. All he has to do is sense that he is moving forward and suspect it is the shape of the parachute doing it, to give him the idea. He doesn't actually have to be moving forward due to the shape at all. He just has to be given the idea. You'll notice my answer is full of maybes and mights. $\endgroup$ – ozone Oct 29 '15 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ @ozone That's not just "very unlikely" in the sense of improbable, it's in the sense of "basically impossible". Ram-air parachutes do not just happen by accident, and no regular parachute has an aerofoil shape where moving forward would do anything that the parachutist could notice. And more to the point, it's also "very unlikely" in the sense of "almost completely certain to cause him to plummet to his death". $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 20 at 13:12
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It doesn't have to be too terribly accidental. There have been no shortage of attempts at flying in history; they generally failed because the machines were either too heavy or based too strongly on birds.

Your inventor could discover the basis of a practical hang glider when the flapping mechanism of their latest attempt at bird-like flight jammed just after launch, locking the wings in the most advantageous position. Efforts to un-jam it could result in the accidental discovery of weight-shift control.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this. Flapping doesn't scale, so it wasn't until inventors abandoned flapping that we got working aircraft. In our world, it's actually surprising that there was no progress for 50 years between Cayley's first gliders (which also put aerodynamics into a scientific format) and Lilienthal as the next practical step forward. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 20 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ Given how many birds glide, one actually wonders why it took us so long to try that... Perhaps it just takes someone that isn't an idiot to come up with the idea. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 20 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew, many birds glide, but very few glide exclusively. The gliders tend to be seabirds, while the inventors with towers and/or cliffs to take off from tend to be inlanders. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 20 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Hawks? Vultures? I would agree that seabirds tend to be gliders; the reverse correlation is somewhat less true. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 20 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew, the hawks I'm familiar with rarely go as much as a minute without some flapping, even if they're circling in an updraft. It's far less frequent than something like a sparrow, but nothing like an albatross, which can go days without a flap. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 20 at 20:03
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Anything is possible


Imagine your protagonist is taking the advantage of the high winds on the edge of a steep hill, cliff, or canyon to dry a sheet or other large piece of cloth. Your protagonist doesn't want his sheet to get blown around too much, so he uses wooden posts to tie down his sheet, stretching it taught over a series of wooden posts.

Then an intense scene shows your protagonist to accidentally push the sheet-dryer off the edge of the hill. While she won't fly very far, she will feel the pressure of the wind and possible experience some hang gliding power. This will allow him to later explore and develop the idea into a more feasible hang glider.

See Leonardo da Vinci's glider for some ideas for a very basic glider design.

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If it does not need to immediately be about gliding gracefully through the air, accidentally… all you need is a sheet and some timber rods, plus a high wind. You could have the protagonist throw himself onto the thing to try to stop it blowing away.

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Falling from a balloon, our hero grabs hold of a passing kite, and luckily enough, it supports his weight...

Or something like that. Man-carrying kites have existed for centuries, and a large enough kite might be the basis for a crude hang glider.

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