If there’s one thing that has fascinated man since the beginning of time, it’s flying!
Designs for the first flying contraption can be traced back to the 5th century. Artist Leonardo Da Vinci even tried his hand at drawing plans for a flying machine, which would later help engineers design the modern airplane.
With centuries of trial and error, aviation’s advancement has come quite a long way and only continues to get better. Keeping on with our Transportation Through the Ages series, this post takes a look at the history of aviation – from machines with flapping wings to high-speed jets.
The Origins of Early Flying Machines
Throughout history, many individuals were inspired to solve the mystery of whether or not a man could fly. Although we don’t know who first sparked man’s fascination with flight, it’s safe to say we have birds to thank.
The word aviation comes from the Latin word avis, which means bird. Birds have been an ever-present animal observed by humans. This, of course, left us wondering if we, too, could devise some way to mimic what it feels like to fly.
One of man’s first dreams of flying shows up in the Greek myth of Icarus, where Icarus and his father attempt to fly off the island Crete by constructing wings made of feathers and wax. After being warned by his father not to fly too high or too low, Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax melts his wings off, sending him into the ocean where he drowns.
This old tale is evidence that man has always had a desire to fly, but the mechanics of human flight needed to be perfected, or else there would be deadly consequences.
Flying continued to be only a dream for many centuries until Great Empires like China invented the kite around the 5th century. They even made small hot air balloons and sky lanterns, which other cultures would later turn into larger hot air balloons and airships like zeppelins.
When it came to human-made aircrafts, famous inventors like Leonardo Da Vinci made several attempts at drawing a flying device consisting of human-made wings. Although Da Vinci never physically put together these designs, his curiosity inspired other inventors to do the same.
Englishman Sir George Cayley was the first to lay the groundwork for a modern aircraft in the early 1800s. He was the first person in the history of airplanes to discover that a flying contraption needed to be powered by a separate system for lift.
Next was Otto Lilienthal, who invented a hang glider with cambered wings. This method significantly increased lift as he moved his body from left to right. Unfortunately, Lilienthal died during one of his gliding attempts but is still considered a pioneer in aviation that helped influence other aviators.
Octave Chanute was another successful engineer who made advancements in the aerodynamics of gliders and powered flights. His impressive text, Progress in Flying Machines, greatly impacted those who would later perfect a powered flying machine.
Last but not least was Samuel Langley, who finally put together a small steam engine model. The model caught the attention of many but unfortunately was too heavy to fly. Although Langley’s attempts were unsuccessful, he inspired two intelligent brothers to follow in his footsteps.
The History of the Airplane
On September 18, 1901, Wilbur and Orville Wright addressed a group of engineers in Chicago on “the difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying machine construction.” With these observations in mind, the brothers worked tirelessly for the next decade to find the solution to heavier-than-air flight.
When designing their flying machine, the brothers realized that the real problem was with the aircraft’s balance and control, which they believed had something to do with the shape of the wings. To solve this issue, they developed “wing-warping,” which twisted the wings in opposite directions using cables.
Over the next few years, the brothers designed their own aircraft. Their first model was in the form of a glider kite. Once the model tested successfully, they added power and created the first motor-operated flying machine.
After several years of attempts and revisions to the model, the brothers finally managed to fly the machine for 59 seconds, covering around 852 feet, in 1903. The accomplishment should have made aviation history, but to the brothers’ surprise, only two newspapers covered the story.
The brothers set out on a mission to demonstrate their design in America and Europe. Once the public saw it for themselves, people started to take the idea of flying machines seriously.
It wasn’t long before President Theodore Roosevelt contacted the Wright brothers and asked to use their planes for the U.S. Army. These combat planes were found incredibly useful during WWI and WWII, as they helped keep an eye on the enemy and successfully carried out missions.
The History of the Airplane and Beyond
Throughout the 20th century, aircraft models transformed and improved significantly. People found sport in breaking records and beating the odds with engine-powered airplanes that could fly for miles.
Helicopters, jets, commercial planes, and spaceships quickly followed, allowing man to travel to fantastic places like the moon. Today, it’s estimated that over 9,000 aircraft are traveling throughout the sky at any given time!
Homeschool History Aviation Materials
Aviation is an important topic to teach our little ones. Why, you ask? Because without it, we would have many gaping holes in human history!
Learning about aviation history can be loads of fun for children, especially if you make it hands-on! We include a brief history of aviation in our Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression study. Plus, we cover famous aviators in our timeline figures, such as the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the history of flight. For more historical articles on transportation, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of our homepage.