Making Pterosaurs Fly
1. The Background
The first sensible reconstruction of a pterosaur skeleton and wing membrane was made by Samuel Thomas von Soemmering in 1812. The reconstruction assumed a few missing features from the skeleton and a wing membrane was extrapolated from what was known about bats and flight at that time.
By 1901, Harry Govier Seeley had proposed a sound reconstruction of a pterosaur that looked at the likely shape of the wing membrane and how it was used in life. At this point the idea of a pterosaur wing membrane evaluation was completely theoretical.
It was not until 1882 that the wing structure was known from the fossil record. A specimen originally named Rhamphorhynchus phyllurus was discovered in the Lithographic Shale of Bavaria. This specimen was later reclassified as Rhamphorhynchus muensteri. At about the same time an isolated wing known as the Zittel wing (below) was published. Both fossils showed the outline and structure of the wing membrane of Rhamphorhynchus. This enabled much better reconstructions to be made. Interestingly, the fossils showed that the ideas of Seeley were essentially correct.
The Zittel Wing
By 1900, enough was known about pterosaur skeletons and wings to attempt a flying model. The theory of flight was at that time in its infancy, but the mathematical concepts were understood, following the work of early aviators on hang gliders and model flying wings.