When the American computing executive Eric Schmidt declared in 1999 that the internet was "the first thing humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand", he demonstrated some remarkable insularity of mind. In fact, man's reach has long exceeded his grasp, and in few areas has this been more obvious than in the development of flight.
The 17th-century Jesuit Francesco Lana de Terzi believed God would forever prevent human flight, since it would create so "many disturbances in the civil and political government of mankind". Even after it became a practical reality, few could appreciate its true impact. It must have been a rather mournful Orville Wright who wrote in 1917 that "when my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible". Instead, as the more far-sighted South Wales Echo put it in 1909, the year the Wright brothers sold their first flying machine to the US army, flight spawned the means to "lay Paris, Berlin or London in a heap of smoking ruins before breakfast..."
The film-maker and historian Lily Ford's new book, enlivened by enchanting images from the British Library's print archives, sets out to chart our flawed understanding of flight, from tantalising whispers about Alexander the Great's griffin-led chariot, via the pleasingly matter-of-fact chroniclers in 17th-century Istanbul who stated that there were in the city "13 masters, capable of climbing to the sky in rope ladders and conversing with Jesus and the cherubim", up to the jet age.
Once human flight had evolved past the wishful thinking epitomised by James IV's court crackpot John Damian, who claimed that his flight from Stirling Castle had failed because his home-made eagle's wings had been adulterated with heavier chicken feathers, it drew ecstatic crowds. In 1783, half of the population of Paris, some 400,000 souls, came to watch Dr Jacques Charles's ascent by gas balloon from the Tuileries Gardens. On a separate landing in the village of Gonesse, the balloon so horrified the local peasantry that they attacked it heartily with pitchforks and muskets.
The public's appetite for airborne spectacle was stoked by the great air-races of the early 20th century, begun by Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail (the inspiration for Lord Rawnsley in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines) in exasperation at the government's failure to encourage aviation. Le Corbusier attributed the development of French public transportation infrastructure before the First World War to the need to cater better to the crowds that gathered for the Paris air show.
For many, flight has become a mundane, even actively unpleasant experience. As Michael O'Leary, the Ryanair boss, once pointed out, "Anyone who thinks Ryanair flights are some sort of bastion of sanctity [...] is wrong. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things." The great joy of this book is to be reminded what a romantic idea it is.
That much is clear from the poetry of aerial literature, which began with Jacques Charles's account of his first flight, a "sort of physical rapture" ("such utter calm. Such immensity!"), and continued with the wartime ecstasies of John Gillespie Magee Jr ("I've trod/ The high untrespassed sanctity of space/ Put out my hand, and touched the face of God ...") and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
But Ford has also unearthed a remarkably moving collection of illustrations. An 1938 Imperial Airways London-Durban timetable (with stops at the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria and the Grand Hotel in Khartoum) is a thrilling document. Even better are the woodcuts of the early modern age, peopled with figures daring the sky in imaginary Heath Robinson contraptions of curious beauty - some driven by wind, some by manpower and some, as in the case of a plate from Francis Godwin's 1638 book The Man in the Moone, by ducks.
Troubled by the scale of her subject matter and the need to give space to all these pictures, Ford is forced to skimp on the detail. One hears that "fatalities were high" in the early days of commercial air travel, but some numbers might have helped to demonstrate the intrepidity of those who took to the skies. Her attempts to turn the spotlight on the often-neglected female pioneers of aviation are admirable, but she can rarely give each more than a single sentence. All this, though, can be forgiven when you look at an image as beautiful as Fausto Veranzio's Homo Volans, a plain engraving of a hypothetical parachute jump, its cherubic hero, swaddled in ropes, bearing an expression of appropriately heavenly serenity.
For Peter Pan, flight was no more than a question of faith, and it is nice to have one's faith in it restored. At her best, Ford reminds us that, in H G Wells' words, to fly "is one of the supreme things possible... it is to pass extraordinarily out of human things".
Taking to the Air is published by British Library Publishing at £25. To order your copy for £20, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop