The Early History of Flight

1900 Wright Brothers' glider flying as a kite.
1900 Wright Brothers' glider flying as a kite. LOC

 Around 400 BC - Flight in China

The Chinese’s discovery of a kite that could fly in the air started humans thinking about flying. Kites were used by the Chinese in religious ceremonies. They built many colorful kites for fun, also. More sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. Kites have been important to the invention of flight as they were the forerunner to balloons and gliders.

Humans Try to Fly like Birds

For many centuries, humans have tried to fly just like the birds and have studied the flight of winged creatures. Wings made of feathers or light weight wood have been attached to arms to test their ability to fly. The results were often disastrous as the muscles of the human arms are not like a birds and cannot move with the strength of a bird.

Hero and the Aeolipile

The ancient Greek engineer, Hero of Alexandria, worked with air pressure and steam to create sources of power. One experiment that he developed was the aeolipile, which used jets of steam to create rotary motion.

To do this, Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere. Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, which gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate. The importance of the aeolipile is that it marks the start of engine created movement will later prove essential in the history of flight.

1485 Leonardo da Vinci’s Ornithopter and the Study of Flight.

Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480's. He had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on bird and mechanical flight. The drawings illustrated the wings and tails of birds, ideas for man carrying machines and devices for the testing of wings.

His Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. It was a design that Leonardo da Vinci created to show how man could fly. The modern day helicopter is based on this concept. Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks on flight were re-examined in the 19th century by aviation pioneers.

1783 - Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier and The Flight of the First Hot Air Balloon

Two brothers, Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, were inventors of the first hot air balloon. They used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag. The silk bag was attached to a basket. The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to be lighter than air.

In 1783, the first passengers in the colorful balloon were a sheep, rooster and duck. It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and traveled more than one mile. After this initial success, the brothers began to send men up in hot air balloons. The first manned hot air balloon flight was carried out on November 21, 1783 and the passengers were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

1799-1850's - George Cayley’s Gliders

Sir George Cayley is considered the father of aerodynamics. Cayley experimented with wing design, distinguished between lift and drag and formulated the concepts of vertical tail surfaces, steering rudders, rear elevators and air screws. He also designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body for control. A young boy, whose name is not known, was the first to fly one of Cayley's gliders. It was the first glider capable of carrying a human.

For over 50 years, George Cayley made improvements to his gliders. Cayley changed the shape of the wings so that the air would flow over the wings correctly. He also designed a tail for the gliders to help with the stability. He then tried a biplane design to add strength to the glider. Additionally, Cayley recognized that there would be a need for machine power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Early History of Flight." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). The Early History of Flight. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Early History of Flight." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).