Read CHAPTER II - FLYING of Rollo's Philosophy, free online book, by Jacob Abbott, on

Nathan became very much interested in the bird, and that evening, as his father was sitting by the fire, with a book in his hand, which he had been reading, Nathan came up to him, and said, ­

“Father, are you busy now, ­thinking, or anything?”

“No,” said his father.

“Because,” said Nathan, “if you are not, I want to read you something out of my little book.”

So Nathan’s father took him up into his lap, and Nathan opened his little book, and began to read as follows: ­

    “’With fins for the water, and wings for the air,
    And feet for the ground, I could go everywhere.’

“Isn’t that funny?” said Nathan.

“Rather funny,” said his father.

“I wish I had wings,” said Nathan.

“Why?” said his father.

“Why, then I could fly.”

“That is not certain,” said his father.  “There are two difficulties which prevent boys from flying.  One is, they have no wings; and the other is, they have not strength to use them.”

“O father,” said Nathan, “I could use them; I am pretty strong.  I can wheel Rollo’s wheelbarrow.”

His father smiled.  “Very possibly,” said he; “but I do not think that you would be strong enough to use wings, even if you had them.”

“Why, at any rate, I am stronger than a bird,” said Nathan.

“Yes,” said his father, “you have more actual strength than a bird, but not more in proportion to your size.  You are absolutely stronger, but not relatively.”

“What do you mean by that?” said Nathan.

“Why, you have actually more strength than a bird, ­a robin, for instance; you could hold him so that he could not get away; and you could lift more than he could too.  But then you are a great deal larger, and you are not as much stronger than he is, as you are larger.  If you are a hundred times as heavy as he, you are not a hundred times as strong.  That’s what I mean by saying that you are absolutely stronger, but not relatively.  That is, you are not as many times stronger, as you are larger and heavier.  You are absolutely stronger, but not relatively; that is, in proportion to your size and weight.

“Now I can prove to you,” continued his father, “that you would not be strong enough to fly with wings, even if you had them.  Suppose there was a pole fastened across the room, and another pole just above it; could you pull yourself up, from one pole to the other, by your hands alone, without touching your feet? ­Or a ladder,” continued his father, ­“it will be better to suppose a ladder.  Now, if there was a ladder leaning up against a building, could you climb up on the under side by your hands, drawing yourself up, hand over hand, without touching your feet?”

Here Rollo, who was reading in a little chair at the back part of the room, when his father first commenced the conversation with Nathan, but who had been listening for a few minutes past to what his father had been saying, jumped up, and came across the room to his father, and said, ­

“Yes, sir, yes, sir; I can.  I have done it often in the barn.”

“How high up could you go?” said his father.

“O, almost up to the loft,” said Rollo.  “Only, you see, father, the rounds are too far up.  I can’t reach up very well.  If they were nearer together, I could climb up so, very well.”

“Well,” said his father, “a bird, when flying, has to climb up in much the same way.  He has to pull himself up by the air, with his wings, just as you do with your hands and arms, by the rounds of the ladder; only the air is not fixed, like the ladder, but constantly gives way under his wing; and so, to make the case the same, you must suppose that the ladder is not firm, but is floating in the air, and sinks down with your weight, so that you have to climb up faster than you pull the ladder down.  Do you think you would have strength enough in your arms to do that?”

Rollo and Nathan looked very much interested in what their father was saying, but they both admitted that they could not climb up such ladders as those.

“The air,” added their father, “gives way continually under the bird’s wing; and yet they have to pull themselves up by it.  And this is very hard.  They must either have very large wings, and prodigious strength to use them, so as to pull upon the air with very hard and heavy strokes, or else, if they have small wings, they must have strength to strike very quick and often with them.

“The wings of sparrows move so quick, that you cannot count the strokes; and those of humming-birds, which are smaller still, so fast that you cannot see them.  They make a hum.”

“I could make my wings go so fast,” said Nathan; and he began to imitate the flapping of the wings of a bird, with his arms, as rapidly and forcibly as he could.

“So can I,” said Rollo; and he made the same motions.  “That is as fast as crows’ wings move, when they are flying.”

“Yes,” said his father, “crows move their wings as fast as that, whereas you only move hands and arms.  If you had great wings, as long, in proportion, as the crows, you could not move them so fast.”

“How large would they be?” said Rollo.

“O, I don’t know, ­perhaps as big as the top of the dining-table.”

“O father,” said Rollo, “I don’t think they would be as big as that.  The crow’s wings are not longer than his body, and so mine would not be longer than my body.”

“Perhaps you never saw a crow’s body,” said his father.  “His feathers and his tail, which are very light, swell out his body, and make it appear much larger than it really is.  I presume his wings, when they are spread, are twice or three times as long as his body.  If you had wings in proportion, it would be with the utmost difficulty that you could use them at all.  You certainly could not strike the air with them fast enough to pull yourself up by them.”

“I did not think that the birds pulled themselves up by the air,” said Nathan.  “I did not know that the air was anything real.”

“O yes; it is something real,” said his father.

“I’ve seen birds fly without moving their wings at all,” said Rollo.

“Yes,” said his father, “and so have I seen a stone.”

“A stone!” repeated Rollo.

“What, a stone fly?” said Nathan.

“Yes,” replied his father; “did you never see a stone fly through the air, without any wings at all?”

“Why, yes,” said Rollo, “when somebody threw it.”

“Very well,” said his father.  “If you set the stone in motion, it will continue in motion for some time, without any wings; and so will a bird.”

“But, father, they don’t throw birds,” said Nathan; and he laughed aloud at such an idea.

“Birds throw themselves,” said his father; “that is, they strike their wings upon the air, hard and quick, and thus get into very quick motion, and then they can keep their wings still for a time, and go on, as long as the impulse they have given them lasts.  This shows what prodigious strength they have in their wings.  They can not only strike the air hard and frequently enough to raise themselves up, and move along, but they can do it so easily, as to get such a velocity, that they can rest their wings for some time, and sail away through the air, only expending the impulse they had accumulated.”

Rollo and Nathan were silent.  Rollo was thinking how he had seen the swallows sailing swiftly round and round in the air, with their wings spread out motionless by their side.

“So, you see,” continued his father, “the difficulty in the way of a boy’s flying, is not the want of wings, but the want of strength to use them.  It would be very easy to make wings.”

“Would it?” said Nathan.

“Yes,” said his father.  “At least it would not be very difficult.  Ingenious mechanics would soon find out modes of making something to answer the purpose of wings, to strike upon the air, if there was the necessary power to work them.  The great difficulty in almost all cases in mechanics is, in getting the power; there is very little difficulty in applying it to any purpose it is wanted for.  So, you see, next time, Nathan, when you want to fly, you must wish, not that you had wings, but that you were strong enough to use them.”

“Well, father,” said Rollo, “men are strong enough to paddle themselves along in the water; why can’t they in the air?”

“Because,” said his father, “water supports them by its buoyancy, and they have nothing to do but to move themselves along upon it.  But air cannot support them; and, of course, a great part of the effort which they would make, would be required to keep them up.  And then, besides, the water is generally nearly at rest, but the air is generally in a state of rapid motion.”

“Why, father,” said Rollo, “I’m sure water is sometimes in rapid motion.  The rivers run very swiftly, often.”

“Yes,” replied his father; “but then, when they do, men cannot paddle, or row boats upon them.  A current that should run at the rate of four or five miles an hour, would be very hard to row against.  But the air is seldom in a state of less motion than that.  It is very often moving at the rate of fifteen or twenty miles an hour; sometimes sixty.  So, you see, there is a double reason why men cannot fly in the air, as well as paddle on the water.”

“If we were only light enough,” said Rollo, “to float in the air, then we could fly.”

“We could paddle about in it, when it was calm,” replied his father, “but that would not be flying.”

“Is there anything light enough to float in the air?” said Rollo.

“No,” said his father, “I don’t think of any visible substance that is.”

“What do you mean by visible substance?” said Nathan.

“Why, anything that you can see,” replied his father.  “There are some other kinds of air, which are lighter than common air, but there is nothing else, so far as I know.”

“Why, father, there are clouds.  They float, and they are visible, I am sure.”

“Yes,” said his father.  “There is some mystery about the floating of clouds.  I don’t fully understand it.  Clouds are formed of small globules or little balls of water; and water, I should think, whatever the size of the little drops might be, would be heavier than air.  And yet they seem to float.  If they are large, like rain drops, they fall quickly to the ground.  If they are small, like mist, they fall slowly.  That I should expect.  If they are finer still, like vapor or fog, I should think that they would fall still more slowly; but still I should suppose that they would descend.  But they do not appear to descend; they seem to float, nearly at rest; though perhaps all the clouds we see, may be slowly descending all the time, while we do not perceive it.”

“The smoke goes up from the top of the chimney,” said Rollo.

“Yes,” said his father, “there is no difficulty about that.  The vapor from a fire is carried up by the warm air, no doubt.  Air swells when it is heated, and so becomes lighter, and rises; and the hot air from the top of the chimney carries the vapor up with it, no doubt.  After it rises a little way, and becomes cool, it ceases to ascend, but floats away horizontally.  Perhaps it begins to descend when it gets cool, though very slowly; and perhaps all clouds are really descending all the time, though too slowly for us to perceive the motion.”

“Only,” said Rollo, “after a little time, they would get down to the ground.”

“Perhaps not,” said his father; “for, when they get down nearer the earth, where it is warm, they may be gradually dissolved, and disappear, and thus never reach the earth.  I should think they would descend, being composed of globules of water, which, however small, must, I should think, be heavier than air.”

“A soap bubble will float in the air,” said Rollo.

“I never saw one that would,” said his father, “unless it got into a current, which carried it up.  A soap bubble ­make it ever so thin ­shows a tendency to descend, unless you put it out in the open air, where there are currents to carry it up.  It descends very slowly, but still it descends.  It is heavier than the air.  I am not absolutely certain, but I believe there is no visible substance that is lighter than the air; and it is very well for us there is not.”

“Why, father?” said Rollo.

“Because, if there were any, they would immediately rise from the earth, and float upwards, till they got up where the air was so light and thin, that they could not go up any higher.”

“And so,” said Rollo, “we should lose them.”

“That would not be all,” said his father.  “They would float about, above us, and, if there were enough of them, they would form a perpetual cloud over our heads, to keep out the sun, and to make the world dark and gloomy.  There seems to have been no way to keep all the solid and visible substances of the earth down upon its surface, but to make them all heavier than the air.

“And thus,” continued his father, “all solid substances being heavier than the air, they sink in it, like stones or iron in water.  Only those that are very much expanded in surface, sink very slowly, and sometimes almost seem to float.”

“What do you mean by expanded, father?” said Nathan.

“Spread out,” said his father.  “An umbrella, for example, when it is spread out, is said to be expanded; other things are expanded in a little different way.  A feather is expanded, that is, it is spread out in fine filaments, which extend, in every direction, into the air, all around the stem of it.  Things that are expanded take a great deal of air with them when they descend, and so can only descend slowly.”

“And water is expanded in a soap bubble,” said Rollo.

“Yes,” replied his father, “and there is a great deal of air included in it, which all has to be brought down when the bubble itself descends.  And thus, you see, the bubble must descend slowly.  Water is expanded, too, in clouds; for, in that case, it is divided into millions of small particles, by which it is spread out over a great deal of air, and cannot descend without bringing a large portion of the air with it.  Men have contrived, on this principle, to make an apparatus to prevent being hurt by falling from great heights.”

“What is it?” said Rollo.

“Why, it is called a parachute.  It is a sort of umbrella; in fact, it is an umbrella, only made very large.  It is folded up, and fastened under a balloon, just over the car, which the man is in.  Then, if the balloon bursts, or any other accident happens to it, and the man begins to fall, the parachute opens and spreads, and then the man falls very slowly.  The reason is, that the parachute takes hold of a large mass of air, and brings it down with it; and so it cannot descend very fast.”

A few days after this, Nathan said to Rollo, as they were playing in the yard, that he wished that he had a parachute.

“I know where there is one,” said Rollo.

“A parachute,” said Nathan; “a real parachute?”

“Yes,” said Rollo, “or, what is the same thing, a great umbrella.”

“Is that just the same?” said Nathan.

“Yes,” said Rollo; “for father said that a parachute was in fact only a large umbrella; and father has got a large umbrella in the closet, and I have a great mind to go and get it for a parachute.”

“But you haven’t got any balloon,” said Nathan.

“O, no matter for that,” said Rollo.

“Then how are you going to get up into the air?” asked Nathan.

“Why, I can climb up on the shed, and jump off that, and hold the umbrella over my head.”

Just at this moment, Rollo’s cousin James came into the yard, and Rollo ran to him, to explain to him about the parachute.  After describing to him the construction of it, and its use by men who go up in balloons, he said he was going to get his father’s umbrella, which would make an excellent parachute.

“And then,” continued he, “I am going to get upon some high place, and jump off, and hold the parachute over my head, and then I shall come down as light as a feather.”

“O Rollo,” said James, “I don’t believe you will.”

“Yes I shall,” said Rollo:  “you see the parachute is expanded, and so brings down a great deal of air with it, and this makes it come very slowly.  Air is a real thing, James, and it keeps the parachute back a great deal.”

So Rollo ran off after the umbrella, very much interested in proving to James, by actual experiment, that the air was a real thing.  When he came with it, he was himself inclined to make the first experiment from the low side of the shed.  He could climb up, by means of a fence at the corner.  James advised him, however, to try it first from the end of a woodpile, which was pretty high, but yet not so high as the shed.  James was not quite sure that the experiment would succeed, and he was afraid that Rollo might get hurt.

Rollo said that he was not afraid to jump off the shed.  He knew the parachute would bear him up.  He did not believe but that he could jump off the house with it; and, at any rate, he could jump off the shed, he knew.  He accordingly clambered up, and, taking his station upon the eaves, he spread the umbrella over his head, and then jumped off.

Down he came with great violence; his cap flew off in one direction, and his umbrella rolled away in another, as he had to put out both his hands, to save himself, when he reached the ground.  As it was, he came down upon all fours, and in such a way, that James and Nathan both ran towards him, thinking that he must be hurt.

“Did you hurt yourself, Rollo?” said James.

“No,” said Rollo, “not much.”

“I don’t think the umbrella did you much good.”

“No,” said Rollo, as he got up rubbing his elbows, “it didn’t, and I don’t see what the reason is.”

“You came down just as hard as you would without it.”

“Yes,” said Nathan, “and he almost broke his back; I don’t believe the air is any real thing at all.”

The fact was, that the umbrella did do some good.  Rollo did not come down quite so hard as he would have done without it.  It retarded his descent a little.  But it was not large enough to enable him to descend in safety.  When his father said that a parachute was in fact only a large umbrella, he meant a great deal larger than Rollo had supposed.  A parachute, such as is used with balloons, is a great deal larger than any umbrella that ever was made.