The History of Powered Flight


The story of the invention of the airplane is one of honest, straightforward, hard-working men trying to accomplish something that had been evading inventors for years. At the turn of the century, dozens and dozens of people were working on inventing a flying machine. With extensive studies of birds and their flights, hang gliders, and even kites, people were obsessed with this idea of developing a machine that could fly.

It was a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal who finally made a real discovery that contributed significantly to the final development of the airplane. Lilienthal took seriously the idea advocated by Sir George Cayley almost a hundred years earlier that the lift function and the thrust function of a bird’s wings were separate and distinct. He thought they could be imitated by different systems on a fixed wing craft and began working on the idea. In the end he made two very important contributions to the emerging field of airplane invention by perfecting a glider before attempting powered flight and a table of the lift provided by curved wings.

Following in Lilienthal’s footsteps, efforts to invent an airplane became commonplace in the 1890’s. The majority of the efforts were in Europe, but in the U.S., Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley made prominent attempts.

Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright are the brothers credited with the first airplane powered by an engine. The brothers requested a patent for a “flying machine” nine months before their successful flight in December of 1903. The brother’s were adamant about photographing every prototype and test of their various flying machines; therefore, when it came time for one of their machines to actually work, it was caught on camera. After several test tries, Orville and Wilbur sent a telegram to their father, instructing him to “inform [the] press.”

The Wrights brother’s success story came so suddenly that their contemporaries could not believe the Wrights had done what they had claimed. After all, prominent scientists and engineers all over the world had been trying to do exactly what the Wright brothers did with absolutely no success.