Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

11.1: First Flight

  • Page ID
    43042
  • History of Engineering: Case History of Flight

    A case history of flight for the purpose of teaching an Engineering lesson
    by Dr. Scott Johnson

    Invention of the Aeroplane

    The invention of the airplane was accomplished by the accumulation of knowledge, testing, and creative engineering of a many individuals and teams. To first understand the invention of the airplane, what an airplane is needs to be clearly understood (note this is a general theme in engineering and science - know what you are talking about first). In general we refer to an airplane as a heavier than air powered flying machine. Other types of airplanes would be lighter than air flying machines such as balloons and dirigibles, unpowered flying machines such as gliders, and minimally powered flying machines such as the modern demoiselles (single-person very light airplanes powered by human motion).

    Lighter than air flying machines depended on balloons for lift. Balloons were first developed by competing groups, the Montgolfier brothers (paper mill owners) and the Paris Academy of Sciences. The Montgolfier brother's balloon used an open flame hot air balloon design while the Paris Academy of Science's lead physicist-engineer Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles' balloon used hydrogen gas. Interestingly, the Montgolfier's theory of why their balloon flew was mostly wrong, even a little comical given our modern understanding. This theme of successful design yet lack of understanding of why the design is a success repeats itself in engineering.

    For a small period of time balloons, charlières and montgolfières, as a method of transportation was very popular. However the fashion faded relatively fast given that there was little practical purposes to them. Eventually powered balloons would be developed but control was still an issue. For any reasonable purpose the flying machine must go from one place to another in a controllable manner.

    Alberto Santos-Dumont

    The Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont developed the first true lighter than air powered flying machine giving his cigar-shaped dirigibles a highly effective control system with his rudder and elevator. He rounded the Eiffel tower in dirigible No. 6 on October 19, 1901 after a 30 minute controlled flight (which he won money for and gave the money, which he did not need because he was rich, to the poor and underpaid staff). Santos-Dumont flew the first true-controllable airplane inspiring many others to continue their work in heavier than air flight. Alberto Santos-Dumont is considered the inventor of the airplane in some countries, this has lead to heavy and heated debate. All unnecessary because real invention is a team effort.

    Santos-Dumont in images and feats
    Caricature of Alberto Santos-Dumont in his dirigible No. 6 which he used to rounded the Eiffel tower on October 19, 1901 for a 30 minute controlled flight. Santos-Dumont_flight_around_the_Eiffel_Tower.jpg
    Caricature of Santos-Dumont from Vanity Fair (British Magazine; defunct), 1901. Public domain from Wikipedia: Alberto Santos-Dumont. Flying around Eiffel tower in dirigible No. 5 (which crashed latter on in the trip). This is often mistaked for dirigible No. 6 (the successful flight). Public Domain.

    Of crucial design in this airplane was the automobile-like engine which Santos-Dumont had to redesign to allow for air flight with the any possible inclinations. Engine design was crucial to all successful powered airplane flights whether heavier or lighter than air. Many of these designs could only have been manufactured at the time airplanes started to take the skies. While this is not a history of the automobile, it is clear that the invention (1700s) and continual improvement of the automobile (combustion engine early 1800s) was required before powered flight.

    Sir George Cayley and Otto Lilienthal

    Heavier than air machines unlike lighter than air machines needed to achieve lift using some form of wing like a bird. Studies of birds were used to design the first wings. Detailed work by Sir George Cayley of England, lead to the first flight of man, possibly one of Cayley's servant, in a heavier than air unpowered flying machine in 1853.

    His work lead to the design of Otto Lilienthal's glider that formed the basis of Samuel Pierpont Langley's, the Wright brother's, and the Aerial Experiment Association's airplanes. With the glider's development and aerial engines that were used in lighter than air flying machines, the only problem left to solve was the stability problem that heavier than air machines all seem to have. Cayley had made some progress using a rudder to enhance stability, but for powered machines the rudder was not sufficient.

    Samuel Langley

    The head of the Smithsonian Institute an astronomer named Samuel Langley, who had experiment with heavier than air flying machines since 1889, developed a rudimentary aileron called a dihedral wing to alleviate the stability problem. While some worked in secret to develop their airplane, Langley was widely published and undoubtedly instrumental in other designers development of the airplane. Langley's model planes (not toys, prototypes) flew very well, but Langley's manned planes never flew and he was ridiculed for his failures with statements indicating that humans would never fly just all the government money spent on flight. Note, however, his work which included confirmation of previous work before him made possible the continued progress towards a sustainable useful heavier than air powered flight.

    The Wright brother's developed the warp wing idea to alleviate the stability problem. This worked well but was very difficult to control and their planes were very dangerous to fly. Wilbur Wright seemed to have the uncanny ability to control their planes and flew from a rail the first heavier than air powered flight on December 17, 1903. However this was not like any plane we know today.

    It should be noted that in July 1901 the first heavier-than-air helicopter was briefly flown with two passengers on board however there is no evidence it was controllable like Santos-Dumond's dirigible No. 5 and 6 of the same time period. Interestingly, Santos-Dumond had a design of a helicopter, the Wright brothers were inspired by a toy helicopter, and Leonardo da Vinci had his own design of a helicopter along with his "aeroplane." Helicopters are another fascinating story, but are not the topic of this essay, however it might be of interest for the student to write an essay on this topic (i.e. The history of the helicopter).

    Bell's AEA

    It was up to the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) whose members consisted of Glenn Curtiss, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick Baldwin, Thomas E. Selfridge, and Douglas McCurdy to fly the first plane as we understand it today. They solved the stability problem by using ailerons which all modern planes use in some fashion. Glenn Curtiss flew their first successful plane, the June Bug, in 1908 and continued developing innovations that enabled him to built a successful business that would eventually absorb the Wright brother's business. This plane, unlike the Wright brothers' plane, took off using wheels like modern planes. The Wright brothers' plane took off using a rail and catapult system (like Langley which possibly contributed to his failures), though interestingly some French pilots licensed by the Wright brothers did fit wheels to the aircraft. The AEA planes (the most famous being the June Bug and Silver Dart) had superior stability over the Wright brothers' planes and other advantages, such as wheels for take-off and landing and a perfected engine (which would be expected since Curtiss' company originally centered around engine design for his "motorcycle").

    With their successful flights and the death of one of their members in a Wright brothers' plane, the AEA disbanded though Glenn Curtiss continued to produce innovative airplanes, using the designs of the AEA, through the first licensed US aircraft manufacturer, the Curtiss Company. In 1910 Glenn Curtiss broke the Wright brothers' distance record by flying from Albany, New York to New York City along the Hudson river, 150 miles, proving to the US the viability of airplanes and establishing his company as well. Eventually in the 1920s the Curtiss company merged with the Wright brothers company forming the Curtiss-Wright Company (note Wright company became a division). The Curtiss (and Curtiss-Wright) company produced some of the finest aircrafts until superseded by other companies that had new innovation such as Douglas (DC-3) and Lockheed (U-2). The large airplanes we fly today are not based off the original airplanes described here, they are another history of flight story.

    Unfortunately, lawsuits between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss stifled progress on airplanes in the United States for years until the government demanded an end to the petty bickering due to the war effort at the time (World War I). Airplanes were crucial to the war effort and Europe had made considerable strides in this technology while the United States was embroiled in legal limbo. The lawsuits contented that warped wings and ailerons were the same idea. Each were initially patented separately, but the courts disputed this with no clear resolution.

    Today it would be hard to make the contention that the two technologies are the same as the ideas are sufficiently different as to be considered separate distinct ideas. However, patent laws were substantially different 100 years ago (even a vague idea could be patented). We might consider it fortunate that the government stepped in to allow progress of the airplane to continue despite the patent laws.

    Lessons Learned

    What are the lessons learned? Discuss in class or with friends.

    ¬ Wright brothers or Santos-Dumont (Brazil) invented the airplane, right?
    The invention of the airplane is really an accumulation of the work of many people with both the Wright brothers and Santos-Dumont adding major contributions. The idea of one group or one person inventing something is more motived by national pride rather than an actual assessment. It is much better to tell the true story of design, science, and engineering rather than the "all were fools until this person (or persons) came along." The later approach is more of a politician, media or filmmaker approach in order to have a "hero."
    ¬ Engineering designs (inventions) are accomplished by a few and not the many?
    No. Engineering designs (inventions) are more a product of many people over multiple generations. This is true for science as well. All of Einstein's theories and equations were build upon works by other scientists including Heisenberg, Bohr, Planck, Lorentz, Poincaré, Michelson, Morley, Riemann, Grossmann, Noether, Minkowski (one of Einstein's math teacher), and more. This is not to say that there is no ingenious ideas involved in discovery and invention; it is to say it is a group effort.

    Graph of how the media perceives engineering design happens with immediate miracles. Graph of how engineering and science actually works with slow step by step progress.
    ¬ Anyone can be an engineer look at the uneducated poor like Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers.
    Let get this straight, these were NOT poor people from the streets. They were rich or very well-off middle class. (Santos-Dumont can also be classified as rich). The Montgolfier brothers owned a very successful paper company with major inventions in that field (including very very thin paper). The Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop (don't think of today, think of back when bicycles were all over the place and an important mode of transportation) and were well off enough to leave other people in charge while they went gallivanting off playing with their aeroplanes.

    As for education, the Wright brothers finished high school and then started a successful businesses that funded their interests in flying. They read the published works of Leonardo De Vinci, Cayley, Lilienthal, Langley, Chanute, and more. It is clear their self motivated studies are equivalent to an engineering degree (it's not impossible to do this, just difficult, and unless you fund yourself it is unlikely you will be taken seriously - even if you are a genius). As for the Montgolfier brothers, paper making is a high technology engineering field (in the past and in the present) and the Montgolfier brothers had the education to continue to lead this business successfully.

    It is clear that none of the inventors/scientists/engineers lacked education (whether formal or self-aquired) or financial resources. Funding is crucial in science and engineering and stories of people with lack of funding producing major engineering/science advances are more for political reasons (to justify not funding science and technology) rather than real world reasons. It should be also noted that self-acquired education requires funding as well (for both time off to study and resources like books, etc.).
    ¬ Innovation is spurred by patents OR innovation is hindered by patents?
    This is an interesting questions and there are multiple point of views. The prevailing point of view is that patents spur innovation by protecting a businesses interests but this is a business point of view with a lack of understanding of innovation. What is the science point of view (well since there are no patents in science I guess that is the wrong question, eh?)? Does science fail to have innovation because it is not patentable? What is the engineering point of view?

    For a counter point of view, let us first note that Santos Dumont did not patent anything he did and expected the world to share his ideas. His most famous invention, the demoiselles, was publicly published in many magazines and was free for anyone to build (even the general public, gasp!). The idea behind patents is that it allows business to recover their initial expense at developing an invention. This idea rest on the dubious proposition that inventions are a single person feat which is only true for small items (like ailerons but not airplanes) and even that is a bit dubious. Glen Curtiss was also known for not patenting most of his inventions having adopted the principle that business should keep on innovating and the only thing that is every patented is inventions that are from the past, not the future. Now the answer to the question is up to you.
    ¬ The study of birds in order to understand flight was pioneered by the Wright brothers?
    Not at all. From Leonardo da Vinci's "Codex on the Flight of Birds" to Cayley's study of birds and Otto Lilienthal's "Birdflight As the Basis of Aviation" there are many examples of early engineers/scientists studying birds in order to learn how to fly.
     

    Suggested books

    1. Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight, Paul Hoffman, Theia, New York (2003)
    2. Progress in Flying Machines, Octave Chanute, Dover Publications, New York (1997) -- Originally published in 1894
    3. Unlocking the Sky, Seth Shulman, Perennial (HarperCollins), New York (2002)
    4. Rocket Man, David A. Clary, Theia, New York (2003)
    5. How We Invented the Airplane, Orville Wright, Dover Publications, New York(1988) -- Note that most books and web sites on the Wright brothers' planes are derived from this book, and are largely unoriginal with no independent research - it is best just to read the original and read other works not centered on the Wright brothers (i.e. do your own research). Almost all Wikipedia page suffers from this as well (and extends to discrediting others work in the history of flight). Do real research. Wikipedia is not very good for topics that are politically charged (this includes science and engineering). Non-politically charged subjects are usually done very well by Wikipedia however.

    Some important dates

    1. Unmanned Langley Aerodrome model number 5 flies for about 0.5 miles - May 6, 1896: Samuel Langley and Charles Manly (powerful light weight motor)
    2. Flight Around Eiffel Tower - October 19, 1901: Santos-Dumont (rudder, elevator, and airplane motor). Dirigible No 6, though technically he rounded the Eiffel Tower on July 13, 1901 with dirigible No. 5 but that one crashed on its way back and is not considered a success.
    3. "Flying Car" lands at cafe for breakfast - July 23, 1903: Santos-Dumont, Dirigible No. 9.
    4. Full scale Aerodrome fails to fly - October 7 and December 8, 1903: Samuel Langley and Charles Manly (airplane motor 4 times more powerful than the engine the Wright brothers used just a few days later)
    5. First flight heavier than air machine: Wright Flyer - December 17, 1903: Wright Brothers (rudder, elevator, and warp-wing; while the Wright brothers engine was less powerful then other engines it did have one significant innovation - the first use of aluminum for part of the system)...the documentation on this flight is mostly the Wright Brothers documentation
    6. First public flight of heavier than air machine: 14-bis (bird of prey) - October 23, 1906: Santos-Dumont - This was likely less stable then the Wright Brothers (this had ailerons, but the wings were problematic though it could be said that most of the early wings of all the airplane inventors were problematic)
    7. First public filming of a heavier than air machine - November 12, 1906: Santos-Dumont
    8. First public flight of heavier than air machine in North America - March 12, 1908: Aerial Experiment Association
    9. First flight of air machine to win first Aeronautical prize in the United States: the June Bug - May 21, 1908: Aerial Experiment Association - This was stable and worked well. (This had ailerons with good wings).
    10. First flight of the modified Langley Aerodrome - 1914: Glenn Curtiss - There is a debate on the extent of the modifications (whether "modern" material was used or not) with each side clearly being heavily biased (Numerous items of this plane would have worked - especially the engine). Unfortunately a clear history at this point is impossible to determine because of the partisan nature of this debate. This is a case where you will have to figure it out on your own by reading and studying a lot. If you are unwilling to do this, then it is probably best that you stay on the sidelines.

    Notes

    1. Working with Samuel Langley was Charles Manly who produced the most powerful airplane light weight airplane engines for the Aerodromes.
    2. Ailerons were patented (and probably invented by...but not sure) by Matthew Boulton in 1868 from a paper the British scientist wrote in 1864. He clearly recognized this device as a lateral control device as did the patent office that issued him the patent. At the time these were referred to as rudders along with what we now call rudders. The patent details what we call ailerons, not rudders however. The first "modern" aileron was probably designed by Henri Farman and both the Curtiss corporation and the Wright corporation were using his designs by about 1915.
    3. Wing warping was known before the Wright brothers use of it, but it was not believed to be primarily used for lateral control, but instead a breaking method to allow for turning (which can be done with rudders only). It is believed the Wright brothers first recognized its use as a primary control device when used in conjunction with the rudder and they successfully implemented the idea. It should be noted that the patent office probably should not have given a patent for this device as it was already known, however patents is less of a science and more of a government sanctioned business method of control even today.

    Items not invented by the Wright brothers, but erroneously credit to them by others (the Wright brothers never claimed they invented these items):

    1. Wind tunnel - invented in 1871 by Francis Wenham. The idea was developed from the "whirling arm" invented by Benjamin Robins and used by Sir George Cayley for his "wind tunnel" experiments
    2. Air-screw propeller - The idea is that the twisted shape of the propeller is due to the Wright brothers, but it is not. Many early airplane pioneers used this propeller shape including Samuel Langley and Alberto Santos Dumont. The idea to make these cambered type propellers which lead to the better designs of Samuel Langley, Alberto Santos Dumont, and the Wright brothers was pioneered by George Cayley; there is no credit of invention on this, just continual improvement.
    3. Yaw-pitch-roll control method of flying - Not really an invention, so this is baffling why this is called an invention by some. Everyone knew you needed to control yaw, pitch, and roll and all early 'airplanes' had designs to control the yaw, pitch, and roll with most of them being ineffective (including the Wright brother's implementation of wing warping). This is usually an invention credited to the Wright brothers in order to overinflate their accomplishments (which were important, but was continual improvement over the past workers in the field).
    4. Planform of the airplane - Not really an invention, so this is baffling why this is called an invention by some. There were many different yet effective planforms from the beginning of airplane design. Leonardo da Vinci (maybe even earlier) was a pioneer in this (from studying birds and bats; just like Cayley and Lilienthal). Note: Santos Dumont was known to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's ideas and drawings (check them out for yourself).