Magic Carpet Ride: From Fantasy to Reality

| 21/12/2016

You see your oriental rug as an important centerpiece of your home. Like magic, it beautifies your space and prompts questions from guests about its cultural history. Your children see your oriental rug as literal magic. You watch as they sit on the floor, pull on their ends of your rug, and beckon it to fly.

Your children may be onto something. The history of oriental rugs includes the legendary idea of a magical flying carpet, and if scientists have their way, your rug could become more than just a decoration.

Read on to learn which stories perpetuated this myth and whether you could one day use your own rug as a mode of transportation.

Magic Carpets Throughout History and Pop Culture

Whether it appears in Russian folk tales or American short stories, the magic flying carpet has influenced cultures all over the world. Here are a few examples.

One Thousand and One Nights
One of the earliest flying carpet legends comes from Scheherazade’s tales. In the story, the Sultan of the Indies poses a challenge to his three sons. The princes have to bring back the rarest item they can find to marry Princess Nouronnihar. Prince Hussein, the eldest son, travels to Bisnagar and buys a carpet that will instantly transport him wherever he wants. Hussein simply needs to think about the destination.

Ultimately the princes have to combine all their gifts, including a tube that displays any location in the world and an apple that cures any disease, to save the now-ailing princess.

King Solomon and His Flying Carpet

These stories vary slightly in different cultures. According to Hebrew legend, God gave Solomon a carpet made of green silk and gold. It extended sixty miles long and sixty miles wide. Solomon sat on the carpet and sailed quickly to the land of his choice. When Solomon became prideful, the wind shook the carpet and killed 40,000 men. The story teaches a moral lesson since King Solomon abandoned his pride and once again turned toward God.

Viktor Vasnetsov’s Paintings
Vasnetsov, a founder of the romantic modernist painting, specialized in mythological and historical depictions. During the late 1870s, he illustrated Russian fairy tales and the epic poem Bylina. This period resulted in one of his most famous paintings, The Flying Carpet.

Tam Sventon Books
From 1948 and 1973, Swedish author Åke Holmberg wrote nine children’s books about a private detective name Tam Sventon. Readers could recognize Tam Sventon from his two main characteristics: eating semlas, or traditional sweet rolls, and riding on a flying carpet.

Walt Disney’s Aladdin

In this 1992 Disney animated film, the Magic Carpet is more than a mode of transportation. He is a character. The Magic Carpet assists at pivotal moments of the movie, helping Aladdin out of the enchanted cave and taking Aladdin and Jasmine around on a romantic flight around the city. But he also provides comic relief through pantomime.

Various Video Games

You too can use a rug for transportation—in virtual reality, at least. In the 1994 game Magic Carpet, users play as a wizard who starts cities and overcomes foes while flying on (what else?) a magic carpet. A sequel to the game arrived a year later. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and World of Warcraft also features flying carpets.

So Could Magic Carpets Really Exist?

As you can see, flying carpets have remained part of our world culture for years. And back in 2007, Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard University had a theory to bring this fictional mode of transportation into a reality. The professor observed that manta rays and skates can “fly” in a way, though they look like flat sheets. Thus, with the right conditions, the carpet could fly.

So how would you make a rug levitate? Mahadevan claims that you create ripples between the carpet and the floor, creating enough pressure to balance the weight of the carpet. Aside from lifting the carpet, those ripples drive the carpet forward.

In 2011, researchers at Princeton University put Mahadevan’s theories to the test. Noah Jafferis spent two years developing a prototype. His team created waves of electrical current underneath a four-inch sheet of transparency. This prototype does not lift into the air—yet—but it does move forward at about one centimeter per second.

The problem comes in when you consider how this material would carry a person in the air. The carpet needs to ripple pretty fast to achieve speed, but the movements would result in a bumpy ride for the passenger. Theoretically, a flying carpet would need to be 15 meters wide to carry a person. A flying carpet would also need batteries to start the electric current, though Jafferis is working on a solar-powered upgrade to solve this issue.

Mahadevan’s and Jafferis’s research has a long way to go. But before you think flying carpets are best left to fiction, consider this.

In 2009, Koichi Wakata completed several zero-gravity experiments aboard the international space station. This Japanese astronaut attempted to do push-ups, fold laundry, and put in eye drops with varying degrees of success. Perhaps his most impressive feat was balancing and sailing forward on a floating white cloth.

Maybe the possibility of flying carpets on earth isn’t too far away. So let your kids sit and pretend, and add in this information the next time your guests comment on your oriental rug.

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