The Invention of the Airplane

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Podcast Transcript

Humans have probably had the desire to fly ever since they saw the first bird fly in the air. 

Flying, as it turned out, was a very challenging problem for creatures without wings. 

Throughout the 19th century, many people tackled the problem without success. It wasn’t until the first years of the 20th century that the problem was finally solved. 

Learn more about the invention of the airplane and the solution to heavier-than-air travel on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Believe it or not, the origin of human flight goes back much further than people realize. Ancient civilizations had stories of gods and heroes who had wings and managed to fly. The most well-known is probably that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. 

However, the ability to put humans into the air probably first occurred sometime in the 7th century in China. 

The mechanism used to put people into the air was large kites. 

This was the first time humans could get really get off the ground and fly in the air.

There were, however, serious problems with putting a person in a kite. You couldn’t control them, and more likely than not, they would crash. In fact, being sent up in a kite was a form of execution in ancient China, which show just how unreliable a means of transportation it was. 

The Chinese also figured out the basic principle of lighter-than-air flight. However, they never extended the idea beyond sky lanterns.

For centuries, tinkerers and thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci created contraptions that mimicked wings or large kites, but none of these designs came close to achieving flight.

In 1783 Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier launched the first hot-air balloon, which ushered in an era of balloon flights. 

Ballooning was certainly useful. It was great for military reconnaissance to see an entire battlefield, as well as for making scientific observations. However, it wasn’t really a means of transportation. Where you went and how far you traveled was totally dependent on the wind. 

Balloons still didn’t achieve the goal of flying like a bird, or if not a bird, at least being able to fly where you want, when you want. 

The person who really advanced the cause of human flight was an 18th and 19th-century British engineer by the name of George Cayley. 

Cayley was the first person to go beyond drawings to actually study the physics behind what would be involved in human flight. He is widely considered to be the world’s first aeronautical engineer.

He identified the main forces involved in flight: gravity, lift, drag, and thrust. He created the conceptual basis for what an airplane would be. A fixed-wing machine with controls for lift, propulsion, and lateral control. 

This was a breakthrough because he stopped thinking that humans had to fly like birds and that the lift mechanism, aka the wing, could be separate from the thrust mechanism. In other words, the wing could be fixed and didn’t have to flap.

He understood the necessity of materials being lightweight. His pursuit of lightweight materials led to his invention of the wire wheel. Something that you are probably very familiar with if you have ever ridden a bicycle.

Cayley also made huge advances by experimenting with air screws, that now better known as propellers, and with the shape of wings. 

His lifetime of research culminated when in 1849, he created the world’s first glider that could carry a human. It was a small boy, for weight considerations that he had hired. 

Four years later, in 1853, he built a larger glider that was able to carry one of his servants over 900 feet. 

Despite all of Cayley’s advances, he recognized that there was still one missing component to achieving sustained flight. As he said himself,

I feel perfectly confident, however, that this noble art will soon be brought home to man’s general convenience, and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and families, and their goods and chattels, more securely by air than by water, and with a velocity of from 20 to 100 miles per hour. To produce this effect it is only necessary to have a first mover, which will generate more power in a given time, in proportion to its weight, than the animal system of muscles.

Cayley realized that there needed to be some sort of engine that was capable of providing enough thrust. 

The steam engines of the 19th century were revolutionary, but they simply couldn’t provide enough power at a low enough weight, not to mention the small problem of carrying around the water and coal required. 

Efforts continued on the glider front, however. The person who did the most to advance gliders was the German inventor Otto Lilienthal. Between 1891 and 1896, he created 16 glider designs and took over 2,000 successful flights from a hill outside of Berlin

His flights were widely publicized and encouraged a generation of aviators around the world, including a pair of brothers in Dayton, Ohio. Sadly, during a flight on August 1, 1896, his glider stalled. He fell 50 feet and broke his back, dying the next day. His last words were, “Sacrifices must be made.” 

The late 19th century saw the rise of a new type of engine, the internal combustion engine, which I have addressed in another episode.

In the same year that Otto Lilienthal died, an American astronomer by the name of Samuel Pierpont Langley made a significant breakthrough. He managed to do the first unmanned flight of a vehicle powered by an engine. His vehicle was launched and landed in the Potomac River, and on May 26, 1896, he flew it twice, the longest of which went 1,005 meters or 3,297 feet.

The Smithsonian Institute regards Lengley as having created the first machine capable of flight, even if it wasn’t powerful enough to carry a person.

The inventors who managed to put everything together were a couple of brothers who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, Wiliber and Orville Wright. 

The Wright brothers became enamored with the idea of flight from the stories and photos of Otto Lilienthal. 

One of the lessons they learned from Lilienthal and other aviation pioneers, such as the British glider pilot Percy Pilcher, was the need to have a way for the pilot to control the vehicle. 

The Wright Brothers had an iterative process, beginning with kites and gliders to try to develop a system for controlling a vehicle in the air. The Wrights extensively studied the work of Otto Lilienthal and George Cayley to create their first gliders. Their work was most definitely evolutionary, not revolutionary. 

They selected Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as the location for testing their models because of its strong breezes, remote location, and sandy beaches, which would allow for soft landings. 

In 1900, 1901, and 1902, they developed generations of gliders that had progressively longer wingspans. Moreover, they also used very early wind tunnel tests to conduct experiments for optimal wing design, testing over 200 models. 

Everything they learned over years of testing and designing gliders was finally put together in the development of the Wright Flyer in 1903. 

The Wright Flyer used wing warping to control the aircraft and had a custom-built 12 horsepower gasoline engine which weighed 180 pounds or 82 kilograms. The engine turned two propellers which turned in opposite directions to counteract their torque. 

They had a custom engine built because the engines used in early automobiles were considered to be too heavy.

After waiting for conditions to be right and several aborted attempted due to equipment malfunctions, on December 17, 1903, they conducted the first sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight with a human operator.

The first flight was flown by Orville, and it flew for 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 feet. It was the first of four flights that day. The other three flights flew for 175 feet, 200 feet, and the final flight, which was piloted by Wilber, flew for 852 feet or 260 meters and was aloft for 59 seconds. 

On the fourth flight, a gust of wind caused the plane to tumble end over end, damaging it to a point where it couldn’t be flown again. The Wright Flyer was taken back to Dayton where it was later repaired by Orvile and the original vehicle is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The Wright Flyer was successful in achieving powered flight, but it wasn’t a practical vehicle. The Wright Brothers next designed the Wright Flyer II. The Wright Flyer II was similar to the original but heavier with a more powerful engine. 

On September 15, 1904, in Kitty Hawk, Wilbur conducted the first in air turn on an aircraft, and on September 20, he managed to fly in a circle for the first time, flying over 4,000 feet or one kilometer in a minute fifteen seconds. 

In 1905, they introduced the Wright Flyer III. The Flyer III was stronger, had a longer tail for improved stability, and a more efficient propeller. 

The Wright Flyer III was a huge improvement over the previous two models. Primarily, it was safer and more reliable. Most importantly, it could fly for extended periods and land where it started. 

On October 5, 1905, in Huffman Prairie outside of Dayton, Wilber flew on a circular path for 39 minutes and 23 seconds and flew for a distance of 24.2 miles or 38.9 kilometers. 

It was the Wright Flyer III which was finally a practical and dependable aircraft that could be launched, flown for an extended period, and landed at will at a location of the pilot’s choosing. 

There was a great deal of controversy at the time as to who was really the first person to create a heavier-than-air aircraft. 

Initially, the Smithsonian Institute refused to recognize the Wright Brothers and instead recognized Langely. Not coincidentally, Languely was the former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

There are some who claim that New Zealand aviator Richard Pearse actually invented the airplane. However, Pearse himself, many times throughout his life, admitted that he didn’t even get started on anything until 1904 after the Wright Brothers had flown in Kitty Hawk. 

In a 1915 interview, he said, “The honour of inventing the aeroplane cannot be assigned wholly to one man; like most inventions, it is the product of many minds. After all, there is nothing that succeeds like success, and for this reason, pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright Brothers, of America, as they were the first to make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane.”

Another claimant to the title of the first flight is Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant to the United States.

He claimed to have conducted an extended flight in 1901 which received a great deal of press. However, he was never able to actually perform a public demonstration, the supposed witnesses to the flight all denied having seen it, and even his own family members didn’t believe it.

After his supposed 1901 flight, unlike the Wright Brothers, he was never able to make a working vehicle capable of flight, seemingly having lost the secret to flying.

His claims are almost universally considered to have been a hoax.

Likewise, a Californian named Lyman Gilmore claimed to have flown an airplane with a coal-powered steam boiler in 1902. However, the vehicle was lost, and there are no surviving drawings, no witnesses, and no photographs. Nothing about it would be feasible according to aeronautical engineering. 

The final claimant is the Brazilian engineer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont was wealthy via his family’s coffee plantation and moved to Paris, where he pursued aviation. 

Many in Europe dismissed the claims of the Wright Brothers and simply didn’t believe that they had achieved what they claimed. Even despite the over 100 flights of the Wright Flyer III, many of which flew for the better part of an hour, with dozens of witnesses and photos. 

On October 23, 1906, Santos-Dumont in front of a large crowd in Paris, conducted a flight that flew at a height of 15 feet for a distance of 200 feet. 

The big difference between Santos-Dumont’s airplane and the Wright Brothers’ was that his plane had wheels and didn’t use a catapult to be launched. 

This was certainly a significant innovation and deserves credit for what it was, but it is hard to accept this as the first powered flight when a year earlier, the Wright Brothers were able to make public flights of over 40 minutes in duration and 20 miles in distance.

Any reasonable analysis of early aviation would conclude that the Wright Brothers were in fact the first to master mechanical-powered, heavier-than-air flight. Most of the early European skeptics later recanted and admitted the Wright Brothers were first. 

As with most inventions, powered heavier than air flight didn’t develop spontaneously. It was the product of centuries of trial and error and scientific advancement. 

Once the concept of powered flight was proven, aviation advanced rapidly. Records for altitude, distance, speed, and duration were constantly being set, and airplanes became more reliable. 

Starting with these early pioneers it took less than 100 years to go from a canvas-covered, wooden airplane flying 120 feet to modern jumbo jets that fly millions of people per year. 


The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Rubina222 over on Apple Podcasts in Australia They write:

Informative and entertaining

I’m loving this podcast and learn many new things every day. I’ve become that annoying person who spouts factoids about random topics! Furthermore, Gary has a very easy-to-listen-to speaking tone but more about this in a future review ;)

Thanks, Rubina! I’m also happy to see reviews from one of my favorite countries. 

Please remember that with all the knowledge comes great responsibility. Please use your powers for good instead of evil….unless it comes to winning bets at the pub, in which case, go nuts.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.