From the first few tentative hops, flying machines developed in leaps and bounds, becoming the most momentous technological advance of the 20th century. On the morning of 17 December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright stood on a deserted beach at Kitty Hawk in the US state of North Carolina, gazing in awe at their latest creation, a biplane called the Flyer. The brothers ran a bicycle factory and repair workshop in Dayton, Ohio, but for some time their passion had been the quest to fly.
Now, if everything went to plan, one of them was about to take to the air, opening up a whole new chapter in the history of transportation. The Flyer measured 6.4 meters in length and had a wingspan of 12.3 meters. The frame of the aircraft was made from bamboo and walnut covered with doped canvas. Before building it, the Wright brothers had consulted various experts in the new field of aeronautics.
One of these was the French-born American engineer Octave Chanute, who lived near Chicago. Chanute was the author of an influential book called Progress in Flying Machines. Published in 1894, this contained all the most up-to-date information on flight and described the work of such aviation pioneers as Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal and the Frenchmen Clément Ader, Alphonse Pénaud and Louis Mouillard.
Visionaries and Dreamers
Sir George Cayley, the English ‘father of aviation’, was a prolific engineer who was fascinated by the principles of aerodynamics. As early as 1799 he proposed the idea of a fixed-wing flying machine and in 1804 he built the first known glider, with large wings towards the front and a small tailplane at the rear. By 1849 he had constructed a biplane glider equipped with ‘flappers’, which was flown by a ten-year-old boy.
In 1853 a glider Cayley developed with engineer Thomas Vick was flown across Brompton Vale in Yorkshire by his grandson George John Cayley. The secret of Cayley’s success was his discovery of the four basic aerodynamic forces: lift, drag, thrust, and gravity.
An understanding of these was crucial to the evolution of powered flight. The first truly methodical investigations into the physics of flight were undertaken by another glider pioneer, the German Otto Lilienthal. From 1891, he built a series of gliders with multiple wings to increase stability.
He launched himself in these off platforms and steep hills. Lilienthal’s experiments showed the need to camber the surface of the wings and add stabilizers to them. He also proved that an aircraft’s ability to gain lift and glide is directly related to the velocity of the airflow over the wing. Sadly, after completing some 2,000 flights, he was killed in a gliding accident on 9 August 1896. Lilienthal was on the fitting one his machines with an engine, a propeller and control surfaces verge of
Orville and Wilbur Wright controlled the movement of the Flyer around its horizontal axis by shifting their hips in the cradle in which they lay on the airplane’s wing. Here, a modern pilot demonstrates the prone flying position in a replica of their machine.
Making the Breakthrough to Conquest of Skies
The Wright brothers avidly followed all these early developments in aviation and more, adopting and adapting many of their predecessors’ innovations. They chose the largely deserted beach at Kitty Hawk, with its high dunes and strong, reliable winds, as a suitable place to experiment.
Throughout 1901 and 1902, the two brothers conducted a series of tests there with unpowered biplanes they constructed. Modifying these machines bit by bit, with different control surfaces, they taught themselves the principles of flying.
When piloting their craft, the brothers would lie in a prone position in the center of the lower wing, facing forwards. Having failed to find a light enough piston engine to power their machine, the Wright brothers set about making one themselves with
THE STEAM-POWERED ÉOLE
A rival claimant to the world’s first powered flight is the French inventor Clément Ader. On 9 October 1890, in the park surrounding the Château d’Armainvilliers outside Paris, Ader managed to rise 20 centimeters off the ground for a short hop of 50 meters. His craft was the Eole, with bat-shaped wings and a steam engine driving its four-bladed propeller.
Ader achieved a few more similarly brief flights in this and a later machine, but his eccentric designs proved uncontrollable. Even so, he was the first to demonstrate that a heavier-than-air craft could lift off from a level surface under its own power.
Ader was forced to abandon his experiments in 1897 by his advancing years and lack of funding, but nevertheless he remained a firm advocate of airplane development. He famously claimed that ‘Whoever gains mastery of the air will rule the world’.
Model of the Éole Ader’s extraordinary bat-winged craft was powered by a two-stroke steam engine of his own devising.
Conquest of the Skies Historic Site
The Wright brothers set up a workshop at Kill Devil Hills, above the beach at Kitty Hawk in September 1900. They assembled their first glider there.
Otto Lilienthal piloting one of his many glider designs in 1891. This influential aeronautical pioneer was interested in bird flight, writing a book on the subject in 1889.
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