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A whirlwind trip through pre-plane flight

It’s taken around 2,500 years to go from the humble silk kite tossed on the wind to flying a manned metal tube through the stratosphere at hypersonic speeds. But before we set our sights on travelling to faraway places like Mars and Jupiter, let us take a whirlwind trip through the mad hat and ingenious inventions that paved the runway for the first manned flight in 1903.

Madmen and visionaries

One of Leonardo da Vinci's famous sketches of a pre-plane flying machine
One of Leonardo da Vinci's famous sketches of a pre-plane flying machine

The annals of human history are filled with a fascination for flight and a desire to flee from danger or travel effortlessly from place to place by air.

The first glimmer of what was to come dates back as far as the 4th Century BC. The “bamboo-copter” – a stick attached to a spinning rotor that lifted into the air on release – was described by Chinese philosopher Ge Hong. "Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox-leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion,” he wrote in 317 BC.

But while some were content to recount myths and legends of flying palaces, carpets and horses, others felt a stronger pull to test the limits of possibility and risked injury and even death to experience the freedom of flight.

In the early days, this usually meant covering the body in chicken or vulture feathers, strapping on artificial wings and jumping from a high place. Although this may seem like a step too far in the service of science, there are more than a few accounts of people experimenting with flight in this way. The results ranged from embarrassment or injury to death, but not much in the way of lift.

By the end of the 17th Century, however, most rational people had concluded it would never be possible for the average human to flap their arms anywhere near hard enough to achieve flight in this way.

Air pressure, steam and the kite

While some brave souls in 5th-century Europe were actively throwing themselves from high towers, two Chinese philosophers – Mozi and Lu Ban – reportedly stretched some silk over a flat bamboo frame to create the kite. By 549 AD, similar kites were being used to send messages in rescue missions and military operations, as well as for testing wind direction and measuring distances.

By the time it reached India, the humble kite had been developed for use in sport. Fighting kites featured abrasive lines to cut down rival kites and were steered by increasing or decreasing tension on the string. Fighting kites are still a popular pastime in India, as well as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand and even Brazil.

The ornithopter

Otto Lilienthal with his small-wing ornithopter, near the Fliegeberg in 1894
Otto Lilienthal with his small-wing ornithopter, near the Fliegeberg in 1894

From its origins in ancient China, it took at least another 1,000 years for the kite to reach the West, and it wasn’t until the Renaissance – from the 14th to 17th Centuries – that some of the scientific basics of aircraft design were explored beyond manpower and metal springs. As early as 1250, English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon suggested that a type of flying balloon could be filled with “aether” and that an ornithopter – a mechanical “bird” – might one day be possible.

Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for his now-famous ornithopter were drawn up in 1488, but a model of this prototype “hang glider” with partially fixed wings failed to fly during a test flight in 1496. Another Leonardo prototype, a four-person screw-type helicopter, is today admired for its vision but not its science.

Hot-air balloons

Although the Chinese applied the principle of hot air rising in their sky lanterns as early as the 3rd Century and ancient Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria used jets of steam to rotate his spherical “aeolipile” toy, it wasn’t until 1783 that the French Montgolfier brothers achieved a number of aviation breakthroughs using hot air.

In June, they lifted a sheep, duck and chicken into the air using a balloon filled with hot air; while in August, Professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers employed hydrogen gas to lift their unmanned craft. Two months later, the Montgolfiers lifted the first humans into the air in a tethered hot-air envelope at the Folie Titon in Paris. Spurred on by this success, they launched the first wood-fired balloon, which carried its passengers five miles in 25 minutes.

Before the year was out, Professor Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made history again with a manned hydrogen balloon that flew 22 miles in two hours from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris to Nesles-la-Vallée, reaching a height of 1,800 feet.

The late 18th Century was a golden age of ballooning in Europe and led to the first realistic understanding of the relationship between altitude and the atmosphere. As late as 1863, tethered balloons were used by the Union Army Balloon Corps during the American Civil War and at the turn of the century, the British Army used observation balloons during the South African Boer Wars.


English engineer George Cayley is generally recognized as one of the most important minds in the history of aeronautics, envisaging modern aircraft as fixed-wing flying machines with a lightweight engine for sustained flight and separate systems governing lift, propulsion and control. It was Cayley who designed, built and flew the first glider in 1804. It had a kite-shaped wing near the front and an adjustable tailplane at the back, comprised of horizontal stabilizers and a vertical fin. The craft's center of gravity was adjusted using a movable weight.

Cayley later went on to design a larger glider with the help of his grandson George John Cayley and engineer Thomas Vick. It flew across the Brompton Dale in 1853 but, unfortunately, the name of the first pilot was never recorded.

The aerial steamer, dirigible balloon and sesquiplane

The US Navy dirigible, USS Shenandoah, over Long Beach, 1920.
The US Navy dirigible, USS Shenandoah, over Long Beach, 1920.

The 19th Century saw an explosion of experimentation. In 1875, English engineer Thomas Moy created his “aerial steamer”, which some believed was the first steam-powered flying machine to successfully leave the ground. The early plane model used methylated spirits to fuel its steam engine and reportedly managed to lift six inches off the ground.

The precarious one-man steerable “dirigible balloon” was the brainchild of American inventor Charles Ritchel. In 1878 his hydrogen gas-filled flying machine achieved a height of 200 feet, powered by a hand crank and propeller. Foot pedals were used to rotate the rudder left or right. Ritchel’s other inventions include the funhouse mirror and the mechanical toy bank.

French engineer Alexandre Goupil’s “sesquiplane” was powered by a steam engine and achieved “flight” in 1883 with two men onboard, when it just about lifted off the ground assisted by 14mph winds.

The aerodrome

In 1896, American astronomer and physicist Samuel Langley flew a steam-powered model flying machine – named Aerodrome No. 6 – more than 5,000 feet. Although its engine was far more powerful than the one used in the Wright brothers' first airplane (50 horsepower compared to 12 horsepower), Langley was unable to find a way to control the craft.

While working to perfect the aerodome’s steering with a man on board, Langley learnt of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903.

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