By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee
Humans have dreamed about flying from ancient times. We have discovered cave paintings depicting human flight. Ancient myths and stories talk about humans and Gods flying. However, for the longest time, it was believed that human flight was impossible. In the 19th century, various inventors tried to make the impossible possible, before the Wright Brothers actually did it. Let’s take a look at how the human dream of flight evolved and materialized over the years.
The winds were blowing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In the nearby lonely Kill Devil Hills, part of the Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina, the cold winds were more intense, reaching speeds up to 21 miles per hour. Occasionally, sand from the beach swirled up.
It was the morning of December 17, 1903, at 10:35. A small cluster of seven people were standing by the side of a strange long contraption: a frame covered with muslin cloth. Two men, both dressed with a certain odd formality in white shirts with dark ties and dark suits, were the focus of attention.
They shook hands, then one man lay down upon the structure, which vibrated with the pulse of a machine, and then started to move along a track on the ground. The other man ran alongside the sliding object.
Then, suddenly, the structure lifted up into the air. This thing, which its inventors called the Wright Flyer, sailed up in the air. For 12 seconds, it stayed up in the air, and then smacked down into the sand, after having traversed 120 feet. Later flights lasted longer and went further.
This was an exhilarating turning point in human history, as two bicycle engineers on a lonely beach broke the shackles of Earth for the very first time, achieving the ancient human dream of steered and powered human flight.
Learn more about the turning points in modern history.
Ancient Stories of Flight
Today, we’ve become so used to the routine of air travel that it’s difficult to imagine a time before this, to really feel the wonder that clung to the very idea of flying. The possibility of humans soaring like birds had been declared impossible many times, and yet this was always a permanent fantasy of the human race.
The heavens were both alluring and forbidding; they were the realm of divinity, not of humans. From the earliest art, gods and angels and spirits were depicted with wings added to human-like forms, to show their power and transcendence; literally their ability to rise above. Psalm 55 exclaims, for instance, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove. I would fly away.”
The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus depicted both the attraction and the dangers of flying. In this story, to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete, the inventor Daedalus built himself and his son wings of wax and feathers, and then they both took off for freedom, over the waters of the Mediterranean.
In the process, Daedalus warned Icarus to take a middle course, flying above the waves but not too close to the Sun, not too high, because that would melt the artificial wings. But his son Icarus, once he had begun flying, was just enraptured by the sheer joy of it, and flew too high, until the Sun melted his wings and he fell to his death. So from the very beginnings, there was a cautionary note about the entrancing prospect of flying.
Over the centuries, in each age, there were men who were driven by this dream to fly, who sought to recreate birdlike wings to get themselves aloft after jumping from heights. Predictably, many of these intrepid souls ended up killing themselves in the attempt.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the genius inventor Leonardo da Vinci also had a lifelong fascination with flight, but fortunately he did not injure himself with such practical experiments. He mused, “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law … which it is within the capacity of man to reproduce.” Showing great prudence, Leonardo advised anyone who did want to experiment with flying to do so near a lake, in order to avoid injury.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Montgolfier Brothers and Their Hot Air Balloon
Just before the epic events of the French Revolution, two brothers achieved something marvelous in France. These were the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne, who had observed a fascinating fact: lighting a fire under a bag would cause it to rise. This led the Montgolfiers to build the first hot air balloons.
At the palace at Versailles in September 1783, the Montgolfiers demonstrated their invention for the king of France, Louis XVI, in happier days. Their balloon did not take up human subjects, but instead, a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. The crowds were astonished.
Then, in November of 1783, with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin watching, the Montgolfiers’ balloon actually carried two men over Paris. Yet steering such an aircraft remained a problem.
Learn more about 1903-Kitty Hawk and powered flight.
Other Major Experiments with Human Flight
In Britain, the engineer George Cayley experimented with gliders throughout the first half of the 19th century. One of his great advances involved understanding the importance of streamlining to reduce air resistance.
It is said that, in 1853, Cayley built a glider and had his coachman fly it across a valley. The experiment was a success, but the coachman on returning to earth is said to have immediately quit his job, complaining to Cayley that he had been hired to drive, not to fly.
Experiments with lighter-than-air craft continued, using hydrogen gas to lift the vehicles. In the year 1900, the German Count von Zeppelin pioneered airships named after himself. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was heir to a coffee fortune, was absolutely obsessed with flying, as well.
In fact, in his apartment in Paris he actually ate meals in the air on a specially designed table and chairs that were six feet high. The waiter would need to get a ladder in order to serve this budding flyer and his guests. In 1901, Santos-Dumont flew above and around the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible.
The German engineer Otto Lilienthal, in the 1890s, further perfected gliders. He produced graceful birdlike forms from which the pilot dangled. However, Lilienthal turned out to be one in a long line of aviation fatalities. He died in a gliding accident in 1896.
It was Lilienthal’s crash and his fate that inspired the Wright Brothers. Orville Wright remembered afterwards that, “Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility.” This did not deter the Wright brothers; it actually provoked them. As Wilbur Wright somewhat understatedly confessed, “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.”
Common Questions about the History of Human Flight
The story of Icarus is an ancient Greek myth, in which Icarus and his father Daedalus tried to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete. Daedalus built himself and his son wings of wax and feathers, and then they both took off for freedom, over the waters of the Mediterranean. Daedalus warned Icarus to take a middle course, flying above the waves but not too close to the sun, as that would melt the artificial wings. But Icarus was just enraptured by the sheer joy of flying, and flew too high, until the sun melted his wings and he fell to his death.
The Montgolfier brothers observed that lighting a fire under a bag caused it to rise. Inspired by this they built the first hot air balloon. And in 1783 they organized several public demonstrations, including for the king of France, Louis XVI at the palace at Versailles in September 1783.
During the demonstration of their hot air balloon for the king of France, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a rooster, and a duck up in the air. Later, in November of 1783, with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin watching, the Montgolfier brothers actually sent two men over Paris in the hot air balloon.
The German engineer Otto Lilienthal is known for perfecting the design of gliders. He produced graceful birdlike forms from which the pilot dangled. Unfortunately, Lilienthal died in a gliding accident in 1896.