Two years after the famous 1903 Kitty Hawk flight, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright built and flew what is credited as the world’s first successful airplane. In the centuries leading up to that monumental moment in aviation history, a number of experimental flying machines were developed in hopes of finally unlocking the secrets of flight. While these early flying efforts may seem to us like failures and slow progressions, the culmination of knowledge gleaned from these attempts eventually allowed for mankind to soar through the skies.
11th century, Eilmer of Malmesbury’s winged limbs
According to 12th century English historian and monk William of Malmesbury, one of his predecessors unsuccessfully attempted to fly. He wrote:
“[Eilmer] was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.”
1485, Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter
During his study of birds in flight, Leonardo Da Vinci realized humans cannot fly by attaching wings to our arms and flapping, as we are simply too weak, and too heavy. Thus, Da Vinci designed a flying machine to overcome this, but the drawings were only conceptual. He did not attempt to build the machine.
1783, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, the first hot air balloon
Another pair of brothers interested in aviation, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, developed the first hot air balloon using smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag attached to a basket. On its first voyage carrying passengers, which consisted of several small-sized farm animals, the hot air balloon traveled more than a mile at a height of over 1,000 feet. Later that year, the brothers celebrated the craft’s first manned flight.Write here…
1799 - 1850s, George Cayley’s gliders
Source: Mechanics' Magazine
A scientific aerial investigator, George Cayley spent his life trying to discover how to achieve
flight and, over the course of 50 years, made numerous improvements to his glider designs. Cayley’s latest glider reportedly was the first gliding machine to make significant and reliable manned flights. Considered the “father of aviation,” Cayley laid the foundation for our understanding of flying. For example, he identified weight, lift, drag and thrust as the four forces that act upon flying machines, the elements of vertical flight, and the importance of cambered wings and a lightweight engine for sustained flights.
1856, Le-Bris’ Artificial Albatross
Inspired by the shape of an albatross, Jean-Marie Le-Bris’s glider was the first to fly higher than it’s departure point. It flew 330 ft high for a distance of about 660 feet.
1875, Thomas Moy’s Aerial Steamer
Using methylated spirits to fuel its steam engine, Thomas Moy’s Aerial Steamer allegedly lifted 6 inches off the ground. Some credit it as being the first unmanned, steam-powered flying machine to leave the ground on its own. But others say it never stood a chance, because the aircraft could not reach the necessary speed for takeoff.
1878, Charles Ritchel’s dirigible
Source: Harper's Weekly
Capable of reaching a height of 200 feet, Charles Ritchel’s one-man dirigible was powered forward by a hand crank and a propellor. Turning could be accomplished using foot pedals that rotated the rudder to the left and right.
1883, Alexandre Goupil’s sesquiplane
Although meant to be powered by a steam engine, Alexandre Goupil built his sesquiplane without one, and it still managed to leave the ground with two men onboard in 14 mph winds during its test flight.
1891, Otto Lilienthal’s glider
Source: Ottomar Anschütz/Lilienthal Museum
Otto Lilienthal’s unpowered glider was the first that could repeatedly and reliably achieve manned flight over long distances. Because of his work, public and scientific audiences began to believe that flight was both possible and practical.
1891, Samuel Langley’s aerodrome
Samuel Langley built two successful steam-powered models of a flying machine he called an aerodrome. Aerodrome No. 5 flew 0.63 miles in May of 1896 and Aerodrome No. 6 flew three-quarters of a mile in November later that year. When Langley tried to scale up the next two aerodrome models to accommodate the weight of a man, the full sized aircraft were too heavy. They failed to launch successfully and crashed. He did not try to fly again after that.
After numerous experiments with various flying machines, Chanute concluded that several wings needed to be stacked in order to achieve extra lift without making the aircraft too heavy.
He also introduced the "strut-wire" braced wing structure, which was later used in powered biplanes. In the early 1900s, Chanute maintained close, encouraging correspondences with the Wright brothers and helped them publicize their work.
If you haven’t already, check out our Historical Figures episode on the Wright brothers.
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