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Historical Research and Development of Aviation

For many years, humans have watched birds fly across the sky and wanted to experience the same. The result has been centuries of innovation, from designing wings made from feathers and wood and attaching them to a person’s arms to creating advanced aircraft that could cross oceans or even leave Earth’s atmosphere. Human flight began with the invention of gliders and kites, but perhaps the most famous names in flight aviation are Orville and Wilbur Wright, the brothers who built and flew the first motorized airplane. Still, research and development in the field of aviation isn’t just about history: Today, people are still pushing the boundaries of what we can do in the air.

Early Attempts to Fly

In 400 B.C.E., Archytas, a Greek scholar, designed and built a steam-powered device shaped like a bird, the first self-propelled flying object. The device was said to have flown 200 meters.

In 200 B.C.E., a Chinese military officer created what would be the first documented example of a kite. General Han Hsin flew a kite over a city he wanted to attack, looking to measure the length of a tunnel that would be needed to storm the enemy’s borders and get past their defenses. The kite did an outstanding job at the task.

The Chinese would also attempt some of the earliest examples of human flight. In the sixth century, Emperor Wenxuan ordered that some political prisoners be strapped to kites and made to leap from a high tower. One of them, Yuan Huangtou, survived, flying about 2.5 kilometers.

Europeans were also intrigued by the possibility of human flight. In the 11th century, Eilmer of Malmesbury, an English monk, designed wings, strapped them onto himself, and jumped from the highest tower of Malmesbury Abbey. He flew for more than 200 meters, but he didn’t plan for the landing: He broke both legs.

In the 1480s, one of the most famous innovators in history turned his attention to aircraft. While none of Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas were brought to life, his notes include designs for a flying machine called an ornithopter, a helicopter-like winged contraption.

Lighter-Than-Air Devices

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the discovery of hydrogen played a vital role in the development of aircraft. In 1783, five inventors made significant contributions to aviation history with their work on balloons.

  • On June 4, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, held a public demonstration of their hot-air balloon. The balloon traveled 2 kilometers and reached an altitude of around 1,800 meters with no passengers aboard.

  • On Aug. 27, 1783, French inventor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis, showed off their hydrogen balloon, the first of its kind.

  • On Oct. 19, 1783, the Montgolfiers launched the first balloon with humans aboard, though the balloon was kept tethered to the ground. This was followed by the first free-floating balloon flight with a crew aboard on Nov. 21.

  • On Dec. 1, 1783, Nicolas-Louis Robert and Jacques Charles took the first human flight in a hydrogen balloon, traveling 43 kilometers.

Inspired by these successes, others jumped in to push these technologies forward, which would lead to the invention of the airship. This type of lighter-than-air craft used a bag filled with hydrogen gas coupled with an engine and rudder to allow for steering of the craft. In 1852, Henri Giffard became the first to fly a steam-powered, steerable airship.

The Civil War marked the first time aircraft would be used for military purposes. The Union Army Balloon Corps did aerial reconnaissance, monitoring Confederate positions and overseeing the progress of battles from the air.

Heavier-Than-Air Inventions

In 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley‘s Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful flight of an engine-driven, unpiloted, heavier-than-air craft of significant size. His invention was a breakthrough in the march toward making motorized human flight a reality. However, when he scaled up his invention to make it large enough to potentially hold passengers, it collapsed in on itself.

Meanwhile, the Wright Brothers were hard at work designing and testing gliders and kites. Orville and Wilbur Wright even built a wind tunnel to help them study and test the lift and drag of more than 200 wing designs. In 1903, they built the Wright Flyer. And in December of that year, they made their historic first flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The era of powered, crewed, heavier-than-air flight had arrived.

Flight in the Modern Era

Partially due to R&D tax credits, advances in aircraft development came rapidly in the 20th century. By the outbreak of World War I, airplanes were ready for military use; both sides made extensive use of airplanes in battle as well as for reconnaissance. After the war, airplanes evolved to be made out of aluminum instead of wood and fabric. Meanwhile, pilots looked for new ways to show off their skills, and the idea of the air show was born.

Pilots also sought glory from achieving firsts in the air. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York City to Paris. In 1928, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was the first to cross the Pacific Ocean by plane. And in 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

The first jet plane would come in 1939, and soon, as World War II raged, the jet-powered bomber followed. Once the war ended, the commercial aviation industry would emerge and grow, initially using former military planes and then developing new models to serve passengers and airlines better. After realizing the economic gains accompanying the invention of large jets, many aircraft manufacturers sprang up, pushing the industry forward. In 1970, Boeing introduced the first wide-body jet, the 747, in an effort to keep up with rising demand for passenger air travel. Douglas followed on their heels with the DC-10, which had three engines and the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers. Today, airlines and aircraft manufacturers continue to innovate, making air travel safer and more convenient.

Additional Aviation Resources

This page was last updated by Steven Jefferies