Fast and Curious

Visions of mobility V

From the invention of the wheel 5,000 years ago and the fairy tales and legends of myriad cultures to today’s science fiction movies, being able to cover vast distances in as short a time as possible has been one of humankind’s oldest dreams. BMW Magazine features a collection of some of the more unusual, visionary and downright quirky examples from the history of mobility under the title “Fast and curious: visions of mobility.” This issue’s highlights include Aladdin’s flying carpet, seven-league boots and the flying taxis from Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element.

Marie Sophie Müller

Magic carpet

Most modes of transport can point to a prototype in nature. In this case it is the eagle ray, a flat cartilaginous fish which glides through the ocean with gentle strokes of its fins. The magic carpet, with its flexible, wing-like form, is perfectly designed to be carried by the air, and its fleecy surface allows passengers sitting cross-legged to enjoy long flights in comfort. The best-known model is the one in One Thousand and One Nights, which Aladdin uses to run away with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Badroulbadour, and win over her heart. The first published editions of this collection of stories do not mention the carpet. But later, especially in the 1992 Disney film, it becomes an essential mode of transportation. It is now believed that this rather unusual flying machine could date back even further. Indeed, in 130 BCE the Parthian king Phraates II is said to have flown on a carpet to meet his enemy Antiochus VII, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. Information on magic carpets of the present day is, by contrast, somewhat threadbare.

Mythical transportation from the Orient – from 130 BCE

Flying broomstick

Well into the Middle Ages, witches flew around not only on broomsticks but also on dogs, billy goats and toasting forks. Exiting through the chimney or a window, they soared away to their meetings with the Devil. On that the experts agree – as they do on the recipe for the unguents with which they anointed themselves and their vehicles in order to become airborne. But for people without magic powers, this potion of deadly nightshade plants merely had a hallucinogenic effect: any attempts to fly were doomed. Until the 20th century, the comfort and manoeuvrability of these flying objects were of secondary importance. The Nimbus Racing Broom Company was the first to specialise in high-speed broomsticks. Its debut model, the Nimbus 1000 of 1967, achieved an air speed of 160 km/h (100 mph). None other than Harry Potter entered literary history with its successor, the Nimbus 2000, and its streamlined rival, the Firebolt. In 1993, the idea of a flying floor-cleaning appliance was given a contemporary twist in the film Hocus Pocus, which featured the Sanderson sisters riding on a vacuum cleaner.

Combined flying device and sweeping implement – from the Middle Ages

Seven-league boots

These were first mentioned by name in the original version of Tom Thumb, Charles Perrault’s Le petit poucet (Hop o’ My Thumb) from the 17th century, a fairy tale popularised in the 19th century in an adaptation by Ludwig Bechstein. In order to save himself from the man-eating ogre, the diminutive Tom Thumb steals the ogre’s magic leather boots, which enable him to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. Boots with magic powers remain a popular motif for fairy tales and folk stories. For example, the Duck Avenger – a superhero alter ego of Donald Duck – uses sprung boots to go about the business of chasing bad guys more quickly. Work is in fact currently underway on these very kinds of boots. Springs made from fibreglass can be strapped onto the bottom of boots and enable the wearer to skip along at almost 25 mph (40 km/h). Not quite seven leagues per step, but impressive nonetheless.

Tom Thumb’s magic boots – 1697

Early sat nav

In the 1964 film Goldfinger, James Bond sneaks a tracking device into the Rolls-Royce of his adversary Auric Goldfinger. The device links up via radio with a console on the dashboard of Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, allowing 007 to follow the car’s whereabouts on a map. An instrument that looked like pure science fiction at the time now appears distinctly prophetic. Whereas the dot on that early tracking system’s map indicated the car’s location in only approximate terms, today’s navigation systems are extremely precise. GPS – a global, satellite-based positioning technology – was developed in the 1970s by the US military before making its way into civilian life in the 1990s. The latest navigation systems have relieved the front passenger of route-finding duties entirely and thus made their own modest contribution to world peace. And they continue to provide a handy tool for catching the bad guys: for example, a stolen car can be tracked via a GPS link to a mobile phone.

Tracking console in James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 – 1964

Chariot of fire

Chariots were the racing cars of the ancient world. Many discoveries have pointed to the particular popularity of the single-axle vehicle in the region around ancient Egypt, leading historians to believe the chariot was invented there. However, recent digs in western Siberia have revealed the area around the Kazakh capital Astana to be the chariot’s birthplace. The oldest of its kind dates back to 1960 BCE. Steam-bent wheel rims – wrapped in leather to protect the wood and make the wheel smoother – and a basket for the driver, open at the rear, turned the chariot into one of the most successful exports of the era. Manned by archers, it heralded a revolution in military strategy. In Egypt, pharaohs had luxury versions finished in gold. Discoveries in the area included suspension elements, shock absorbers and even a kind of rear-view mirror. The ancient Greeks and Romans were particular fans of the lightweight one- or two-horse carriages. Think Formula One, old world style.

Military vehicle from the ancient world – 2nd millennium BCE

Flying taxi

It’s the 23rd century and queuing at red lights is a thing of the past. If the traffic starts to build up, you simply move up to the next level. That, at least, is the picture painted by director Luc Besson in his film The Fifth Element. Cars, trucks and taxis float through an apocalyptic cityscape like a swarm of bees – albeit slightly ponderous bumblebees in this case. Bruce Willis, alias taxi driver Korben Dallas, drives a rather bloated version of a New York checker cab from the 1920s. But appearances can be deceptive, and the car duly proves to be as agile as a fighter jet as well as offering special effects controlled via an on-board computer. Besson drew inspiration from Valérian: Les cercles de pouvoir, and the French comic book’s illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières was brought on board for The Fifth Element. So when will our real-world cars be ready for take-off? Terrafugia in the USA, Mycopter in Europe and Urban Aeronautics in Israel are all working to make it happen.

Air travel in The Fifth Element – 1997