Avgeek Alert: Milestones in Manned Flight Before the Airplane


For thousands of years, humanity has dreamed of flying like birds, at least as far back as the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and explored by the imaginations of numerous writers, including Spain´s Miguel de Cervantes in the 16th century to Jules Verne in the 19th-century France. And indeed, for centuries, also more concretely by inventors well before the Wright Brothers.

Archytas of Tarentum´s ´Flying Pigeon´

The first attempt at artificial flight recorded in history came from a leader of a Hellenic colony outside Greece proper (now the city of Taranto in southern Italy´s Apulia region) in the 4th century BCE who was also a premier scientist, mathematician, philosopher – and inventor, of ingenious devices such as the screw and the pulley. But he´s most known for his peristera (pigeon in classical Greek), which experts agree could have been the first self-flying device. Made of wood, shaped like a bird (something that, as we will see, would become a constant throughout history), and tied with ropes, it used a small boiler to generate steam that propelled it along at a height of as much as 180 metres (591 feet).

Abbas Ibn Firnas, the First Man to Fly

Fast forward more than a millennium to Qurṭubah (present-day Córdoba) in al-Andalus (the area of Iberia ruled by the Moors), where in the year 875 this inventor, scientist, chemist, physician, engineer, musician, and artist  created wooden “wings” covered with feathers, climbed a tower, and managed to stay in the air for ten seconds. Although the landing was terrible (he broke both legs), the truth is that overall his feat is considered a success. And by the way, ibn Firnas is also considered the inventor of the parachute, 23 years earlier.

Leonardo da Vinci´s ´Ornithopter´

Possibly the best entry on this list comes from the quintessential “Renaissance man”, who was not only a legendary artist but also a capable inventor, and one of his most famous designs was an ornithopter (from the Greek ornis, “bird” and pteron, “wing¨) an aircraft which flies by flapping wings. Leonardo spent many years observing and documenting the flight of birds and insects and came to the conclusion that weight prevented man from flying. But he developed theoretical models and drawings of flying machines such as the ornithopter, based on how the flapping of avian wings generate lift and propulsion (physical principles adopted centuries later by aeronautical engineering).

The Hot-Air Balloon of the Montgolfier Brothers

The first device allowing humans to fly for extended periods of time was the globe aérostatique invented in 1783 by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France. It´s based on the Archimedes principle (authored by the eponymous 3rd-century-BCE mathematician) which holds that an object immersed in a fluid experiences an upward thrust equal to the weight of the volume of the object. fluid that dislodges. So for the hot-air balloon to rise, the displaced air must have a weight greater than that of the object (the balloon plus the people it carries). Thus the upward thrust is greater than the force of gravity pulling the object downward. The air inside the balloon is hot, so it acquires a different density and achieves its goal: flight.

The Steam-Powered Dirigible

The main drawback of the hot-air balloon was that its direction of flight couldn´t be well controlled. And so various inventors set their minds toward creating lighter-than-air craft which could navigate more effectively. Several attempts were made in the 17th through 19th centuries, but it wasn´t until 1852 when Paris engineer Henri Giffard invented a steam-powered airship equipped with rudders and engines, managed to travel 24 kilometres (15 miles), at 8km (five mi.) per hour. Dirigible airships continued to be developed – even after the catastrophic 1937 crash of the world´s most famous, the Hindenberg – and are still in limited use today for passenger transportation as well as military, industrial, and other uses.

Gliding Right Along: the Final Chapter in the ´Prehistory´ of Airplanes

Along with advent of the airship, the 19th century was especially fruitful in the evolution of what in the 20th would become aeronautical engineering. A number of engineers and inventors in Europe and the United States developed gliders with the objective of sustaining controlled flight and studied how to continually innovate and improve. For example, in 1866 British engineer Francis Wenham discovered that the optimal wing design should be more closer to that of today’s airplanes than to the designs made until then, modeled on bird or bat wings, since they provided more lift. Although his gliders weren´t actually successful, his work was continued years later by Prussia´s Otto Lilienthal, whose gliders managed to travel farther than any previously. The French-American civil engineer Octave Chanute took up the baton and advanced aviation by creating wing structures later used in biplanes (in fact, he is considered the “father of aviation”, and among other things counseled the Wright brothers). The prehistory of the airplane was ending, and a new era was opening for humanity.


Photo| Grafissimo