April 15, 2024

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Who invented the plane? For many people in the world, it was not the Wright brothers

6 min read

The history of aviation has followed a fascinating trajectory. Leonardo da Vinci first envisaged manned flight way back in the 15th century. Then came hot-air balloons, followed by gliders and airships, until the Wright brothers’ historic powered flight in 1903. Today there are airliners that can carry hundreds of passengers non-stop half way round the world. And space tourism will one day be a reality.  

Browse the following gallery and take off for a brief flight through the history of aviation, and meet some of the great pioneers of air travel along the way.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter design

A genius centuries ahead of his time, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) came up with the idea in 1488 for an ornithopter, a machine that mimicked the flapping wings of a bird.

Leonardo’s proposals for flights by machines

His ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’ (1505) examined the flight behavior of birds, and proposed mechanisms for flight by machines.

Bartolomeu de Gusmão (1685–1724)

Visionary Portuguese priest and naturalist Bartolomeu de Gusmão is credited with drawing up the first designs for an airship.

The passarola

His invention, the passarola, appeared in 1709 as a balloon-shaped bird complete with a tail and wings. However, the public presentation of the airship was canceled apparently due to pressure by the Portuguese Inquisition.

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772)

Swedish inventor, scientist, and self-styled mystic Emanuel Swedenborg sketched his own flying machine in 1714. Incredibly, this drawing was only discovered in 1867.

The Montgolfier brothers

On June 4, 1783, the high-flying Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, demonstrated their unmanned hot-air balloon in Annonay, France.

Vive ‘La France!’

By the late 19th century the French were way ahead of the competition. In 1884, the first fully controllable airship, La France, was launched. Things were certainly looking up.

George Cayley (1773–1857)

Another important name in the history of aviation and aeronautics is Englishman George Cayley. In 1852 he designed and built the “governable parachute,” a working, piloted glider.

High flyer

French aviator Jean-Marie Le Bris (1817–1872) achieved a first in 1868 by taking his flying machine, Albatros II, higher than his point of departure by around 100 m (328 ft).

The “Glider King” of Germany (1848–1896)

This is Otto Lilienthal (1848–1896), the first man to be photographed flying a heavier-than-air machine, on May 29, 1895.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873–1932)

But it was a Brazilian man called Alberto Santos-Dumont who successfully combined a balloon with an internal combustion engine. He’s pictured piloting “Number 6” round the Eiffel Tower in October 1901—and bagging the prestigious Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize into the bargain.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917)

But rigid airship design and advancement was truly pioneered by German count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a name that would become synonymous with innovation… and destruction.

The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin

By the early 20th century Zeppelins were being flown commercially, carrying fare-paying passengers. During the Great War, the airships were deployed as bombers. Over 500 people in Britain alone were killed during air raids.

Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834–1906)

American aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley developed a piloted airplane, which he called the “Aerodrome.” He tested it on the Potomac River on October 7, 1903, but crashed on take-off twice, prompting him to give up on the project.

Did this man predate the first flights by the Wright Brothers?

German-born American aviator Gustave Whitehead (1874–1927) claimed to have flown a powered machine successfully on several occasions throughout 1901 and 1902. However, newspaper reports were unsubstantiated and no photographs taken. In this image, Whitehead sits beside his aircraft with daughter Rose in his lap.

The Wright brothers

The Wright brothers made the first sustained flight with a powered, controlled aircraft on December 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur Wright (pictured here in 1910) have gone down in aviation history for their triumph at Kitty Hawk. Intriguingly, however, Orville Wright later questioned whether Gustave Whitehead was indeed first in powered flight.

A public flight in Paris

Three years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight, Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont made a public flight in Paris with the 14-bis, also known as Oiseau de proie (French for “bird of prey”), on September 13, 1906. The era of pioneering aviation had arrived.

First flight across the English Channel

On July 25, 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot (1872–1936) made the first airplane flight across the English Channel. He is pictured shortly before arriving at Northfall Meadow, close to Dover Castle, on the south coast of England.

First World War

The Great War saw aircrafts being used in combat for the first time. One of the most notorious aviators of that conflict was German ace Manfred von Richthofen (1892–1918). His blood red Fokker Dr.I triplane was the most distinctive—and feared—aircraft in the skies.

Flying across the South Atlantic Ocean

Portuguese aviation pioneers Gago Coutinho (1869-1959) and Sacadura Cabral (1881-1924) were the first to cross the South Atlantic Ocean by air, this in 1922.

The flying boat takes off

Flying boats or seaplanes became commonplace with the advent of the 1920s, operating in both a commercial and later a military capacity.

Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974)

Piloting the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight and the first non-stop flight between North America and the European mainland in May 1927.

The Hindenburg disaster

On May 6, 1937 the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg exploded during its attempt to dock at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The disaster, recorded on newsreel and captured in photographs, effectively ended the airship era.

Amelia Earhart (1897–disappeared 1937)

The first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Earhart attempted a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937. Her plane disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean and mystery still surrounds her fate and that of her navigator.

Second World War

World War II brought with it aerial warfare on an unprecedented scale. The appearance towards the end of the conflict of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, was not enough to turn the war in Germany’s favor.

The ‘Spruce Goose’

One of the great white elephants of aviation, the colossal Hughes H-4 Hercules, a flying boat built on the orders of business magnate Howard Hughes and nicknamed Spruce Goose, made only one brief flight on November 2, 1947.

The right stuff

The advent of the 1950s saw commercial and military aircraft innovation and technology advance rapidly. Chuck Yeager became one of the most celebrated test pilots in aviation history. In 1947, he flew the Bell X-1 (pictured) beyond the sound barrier and into the record books.

Before the moon

Long before he took that historic small step on the moon, Neil Armstrong test-piloted experimental jet aircraft for a living. He’s pictured in 1960 with a hypersonic X-15-1 after a research flight.

de Havilland DH 106 Comet

Commercial aviation took off exponentially in the post-war era. The first commercial jet airliner to fly was the British de Havilland Comet, introduced in the early 1950s. Here it is before a test flight in 1949.

Jump to it!

One of the most innovative and ground-breaking military airplanes to come out of the 1960s was the Harrier Jump Jet, a jet-powered attack aircraft capable of vertical/short takeoff and landing operations.

Pan Am 747-100

The Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” was first flown commercially in 1970, with Pan Am being the airline that was chosen to launch the new plane. The distinctive hump-like upper deck is the preserve of first-class passengers.

The rise and fall of Concorde

The introduction into general service of Concorde in 1976 showcased a leap in technological and aesthetic aviation capabilities. Flying at over twice the speed of sound, Concorde remained the world’s only supersonic passenger jet until it ceased operation in 2003, three years after the terrible crash of Air France Flight 4590, the only fatal accident involving Concorde.

Rutan Model 76 Voyager

The mid-1980s saw a remarkable achievement undertaken in the spirit of the early aviation pioneers. In December 1986, the Rutan Voyager became the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

Airbus A380

Currently the world’s largest passenger airliner, the double-deck Airbus A380 can accommodate up to 853 people if flown in an all-economy configuration.

The sky is no longer the limit

What next? SpaceShipTwo, owned by Virgin Galactic, was designed with space tourism in mind. It’s photographed resting under its mothership, White Knight Two.

Space tourism

On February 19, 2016, Virgin Galactic rolled out the VSS Unity, a suborbital rocket-powered manned space plane. The craft is currently undergoing test flights.

Source: Who invented the plane? For many people in the world, it was not the Wright brothers (msn.com)

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