The Early History Of Airplanes

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Maligning the Wright Legacy

The Early History Of Airplanes

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The ease with which birds roam the skies has always been envied by man. The dream to be able to take off to the skies is probably as old as mankind itself. However, the concept of the aeroplane or airplane is fairly new. 

Just about 2 centuries ago man tried imitating birds by creating the omithopter. The omithopter was basically a machine with flapping wings. Unfortunately, it did not scale well. Flapping wings were great to lift light bodied birds. However, they simply did not have the power required to lift an entire machine and a human body as well. The concept was good but could not be executed.

In around 1783, another attempt at flying was made by a few daring aeronauts in lighter-than-air balloons. While this experiment succeeded in getting off the ground – literally – it did not go very far either. The aeronauts had no way to maneuver the balloon and were completely dependent on the strength and direction of the wind for their flight. The project was grounded soon after. 

It was only in 1799, that an Englishman named Sir George Cayley built the first true airplane. He conceptualized a flying machine that had fixed wings instead of flapping ones, a propulsion system and even movable control surfaces. Thus, the fundamental concept of airplanes came into existence. 

With his emphasis on lift, thrust and control Cayley designed the first glider in 1804. It had a single wing and a movable tail mounted on a universal joint. It also had an adjustable center of gravity and was the first ever aircraft of any size capable of flying. In 1809 Cayley expanded the glider concept and built a man-sized one with wings spanning 300 feet. A few hops were all it could manage. Around the same time Cayley also published a three part series ‘On Aerial Navigation’ in Nicholson’s Journal Of Natural Philosophy to propound his theory on flying as being a consequence of lift, propulsion and control.

While Cayley was working on his glider there were others too who were trying to fly. In 1831 Thomas Walker proposed the tandem-wing design airplane. It featured a wing whose camber was upside down. Had it been built it would have stayed firmly on the ground. In 1843 Samuel Henson proposed the first ever design for a propeller driven fixed-wing aircraft. A few years later Henson built his airplane with Stringfellow but it only managed brief glides.

It was after years of experimentation and research in 1849, that Cayley finally built a small glider that could lift about 80 pounds of weight. He called it the ‘boy-glider’ since it could lift a 10-year old boy for a few yards. And what followed changed the course of flying forever. In 1853, Cayley built an improved version of the boy-glider and convinced his coachman to pilot it. The coachman made a wavering and uncontrolled glide of a few hundred feet. This was the first ever truly manned flight in a fixed wing aircraft!

Soon after attempts started being made by others as well to build power aircrafts. In 1857 Felix Du Temple and his brother Louis flew a model monoplane with steam engine driven propellers. This was the first ever, successful flying powered aircraft.

In 1871, Penaud built the planophore. It was a 20-inch long monoplane with a pusher propeller powered by a rubber band and flew 131 feet in 11 seconds. Wenham and Browning in the same year demonstrated the wind tunnel to prove that cambered wings produce more lift than other types of wings. There were continued attempts by many inventors to build successful powered aircrafts. While many important discoveries were made, no one was able to build an aircraft capable of sustained flight.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century many discoveries and attempts were made to build an airplane. Moulliard of France pointed out the necessity of training pilots to fly the various aircrafts being built. Parsons in England used a small steam engine to propel a plane for almost 300 feet. This is the first ever account of a jet aircraft.

In 1884 a significant discovery was made by Horatio Philips. He worked with cambered wings in a wind tunnel, which is the scientific foundation for modern airfoil designs as well. He also discovered that when wind blows across a curved surface, it creates a low pressure area on top of the surface and high pressure area below it. This is what generates the much-required lift.

In 1891 Samuel Langley began experimenting with Aerodromes and even got funding from the government. The first five attempts however, were all miserable failures.

And finally, it was around the same time, the Wright brothers start building their airplane and getting recognized for their work at Kitty Hawk. The story of the Wright brothers’ airplane reads like a true American success story! All the above events seem to be leading up to the grand finale executed and performed by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

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