This question stems from a commonly depicted mode of transportation, the ornithopter. It is the primary flight tool in the latest Dune movie as well as seen in Black Panther and in several books I've been reading. My question is where did the idea for this flying machine first stem from as it seems to be a primary mode of flight for futuristic societies.

Edit: while the comment does answer where the name comes from and its design. I am specifically looking to the dragonfly design that has become associated with the name.


3 Answers 3


As Valorum pointed out, experimental ornithopters date back at least to Leonardo da Vinci and probably earlier. Working ornithopters have been built in the real world; I used to have a toy that flew by flapping light Mylar wings. Google Ngram Viewer shows that the word ornithopter dates back at least to 1866, though it didn't "take off" till after the Wright Brothers' successful flight with a fixed-wing aircraft in 1903.

But all of that's in the real world. Presumably the OP wants to know when this concept entered science fiction. Obviously, Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) made use of ornithopters, but he wasn't the first. In 1964, Cordwainer Smith mentioned "police ornithopters" in his short story "The Dead Lady of Clown Town". That probably isn't the first use of ornithopters in science fiction either. I'm not counting the ancient myth of Daedalus, who was said to devise wings made of feathers and wax, because his invention doesn't seem to satisfy the definition of an ornithopter as a machine that flies by flapping its wings.

As to ornithopters that use the dragonfly instead of the bird as a model, in film they include Stars Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (2005), in which Wookiees fly Raddaugh Gnasp fluttercraft. In written form, as pointed out by coppereyecat, they go back at least to James Gurney's Dinotopia: the World Beneath (1995). The author discussed his inspiration in a 2009 blog.

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    Here is the Wham-O mechanical bird, which is perhaps the one you had. I had one, and as I recall it was not designed to land well and broke on its second flight.
    – Wastrel
    Nov 22, 2021 at 14:16
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    Given that it's a standard idea before science fiction (anyone who has observed a bird will come up with the idea that flapping is the way to fly) the idea of which was the first book that happened to mention it is pretty redundant. Like "when did the idea of cooking potatoes originate", obviously there was some book which happened to be the first to mentioned cooked potatoes, but does that really count? Nov 22, 2021 at 22:12
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    Dinotopia had a dragonfly ornithopter in The World Beneath, 1995. Nov 22, 2021 at 23:29
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    @coppereyecat Thank you. I've added (and credited) your contribution to the answer. Nov 22, 2021 at 23:36
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    Castle in the sky (Ghibli studio) depicted dragonfly-style flying vehicles in 1986.
    – Rad80
    Nov 23, 2021 at 8:20

1930: "The First Ornithopter", a short story by Jack Winks, in Amazing Stories, January 1930, available at the Internet Archive. Review by Everett F. Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years:

The reclusive inventor John Petite has constructed what might be a successful one-man flying machine with flapping wings. Unfortunately, he does not have an adequate power source. While making a brief trial flight he chances to meet electrical engineer Grossman, who can provide a far superior battery than Petite has, and constructs a more efficient motor. As a result, after a few mishaps, the ornithopter flies beautifully.


My great grand father the french engineer René Riout devoted himself for three decades to the realization of flapping wing ornithopters. In 1905 he invented his first models. In 1909 he won the gold medal in the Lépine competition for a reduced model. In 1913 he worked on the development of a model ordered by a pilot, the Dubois-Riout. The tests were stopped in 1916. In 1937, he finalized the Riout 102T Alérion, certainly the most successful piloted flapping wing ornithopter until the second decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the conclusions of the wind tunnel tests were not favorable to the continuation of the project. Ornithopter Riout 102T Alérion You have more image on W.Pearce Riout 102T Alérion Ornithopter Doesn't it look like Dune Ornithopter?

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