The Jesuit known as the ‘father of aeronautics’

Pope Francis arrives May 12 at Monte Real air base in Leiria, Portugal. Father Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit, below, is known as the “father of aeronautics.”
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Commissioned to do some global engagement work for the university, I’ve clocked quite a bit of international travel this year, which has demanded a staggering amount of hours on flights. (In fact, I’m typing this at 35,000 feet!). The Wright brothers could likely never have fathomed the industry that would develop in the century after their experiments in Kitty Hawk. But they were not the first to imagine a world in which human beings could rise above the horizon and loosen, at least temporarily, the fetters tethering their ancestors to the earth.

Father Francesco Lana de Terzi, an Italian Jesuit, first began positing that physics and mathematics could be used as the basis for “a theory of aerial navigation” in the 1600s. For this assertion, made almost a century before the first sustained human flight in hot air balloons came to pass, Lana de Terzi is known as the “father of aeronautics.”

He was also in some ways a prophet, envisioning the human capacity for twisting such a potential good into an unconscionable evil. He profoundly encouraged his audience to imagine the “flying ship’s” ability to cause “disturbances in the civil and political governments of humankind. Where is the man who can fail to see that no city would be safe against surprise, as the ships at any time could be maneuvered over its public squares and houses? Fortresses and cities could thus be destroyed, with the certainty that the aerial ship could come to no harm, as iron weights, fireballs, and bombs could be hurled from great heights.”

Both the blessings and curses associated with this technology have come to play an increasingly important role in our economic, political, and social lives. The processes of globalization and means to procure and provide humanitarian aid are greatly strengthened by our ability to crisscross the skies and oceans quickly; as are the devastations wrought by drones and the ability ultimately to end life on this planet through nuclear warfare.

Today, most New Jersey residents have at least some friends or relatives who have relocated to other parts of the country. This is a common reality throughout not only American, but human history, where people have been “on the move” since our earliest ancestors emerged from their first natural habitats to explore the world around them. As rafts and dogsleds and stagecoaches and steam engines once did, air travel and associated modern technologies play an important role in many Americans’ lives in the 21st century, keeping us connected.

I once read an article cleverly arguing that air conditioning changed the electoral college map, as previously almost uninhabitable places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, as well as other warm-weather cities like Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, and Jacksonville became booming population centers. Cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland were predicted to continue to hemorrhage residents, immensely altering previous centers of influence. A demographic shift of American Catholics is also taking place southward and westward away from the traditional centers of immigrant life on the Eastern seaboard and upper Midwest.

A not unrelated movement is happening in international ecclesial life, as the balance of power fluctuates away from the North Atlantic countries toward new centers of gravity due to unrivaled growth in the global South/“majority world.” Nigeria will soon have more people than the United States (as well as Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Spain combined), and already has more weekly church-goers. Religious vocations are skyrocketing in India. Pope Francis has named cardinals from 11 countries which have never previously had one.

Along with internet technology, air travel continues to shrink our nation and our world, while simultaneously expanding our cultural vistas as we move out of provincialism and parochialism to travel to new places and foster a “culture of encounter.” Its benefits to our world need always to keep in mind Lana de Terzi’s warnings, though, because the capacity for the human race to inflict unimaginable horrors on itself accompanies the substantial positive contributions made by sailing these new currents.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.