The Century Before: 1880 to 1898
Airmen and Chauffers

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ites and flying toys have been around for thousands of years. But the science that led to the invention of the airplane is fairly recent, dating to just 1799. There were two scientific investigations into fixed-wing aviation prior to that time, but they led nowhere. About 875 CE, scientist/inventor Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas built a set of fixed wings and made a free flight in Cordova, Spain. In the 1480s, artist/inventor Leonardo Da Vinci studied mechanical flight. In both cases, however, no one preserved or continued the work of these brilliant men. Only a few short references in Islamic histories document the flight of Ibn Firnas. Da Vinci's notebooks in which he recorded his work in aviation were scattered and only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, too late to be of any use.

It wasn't until Sir George Cayley designed, built, and flew several fixed-wing flying machines between 1799 and 1853 that aviation took root as a scientific endeavor. Cayley's published writings laid a foundation for the scientists that followed him, upon which they built a body of knowledge about mechanical flight. This, in turn, inspired the work of the Wright brothers. This timeline summarizes the events that led from Cayley's work in 1799 to the Wrights' first powered flights in 1903.

  • The First Airplanes, 1799 to 1853 – Experiments prove the feasibility of a flying craft with fixed (instead of flapping or whirling) wings to generate lift.
  • Powering Up, 1854 to 1879 – Designers begin to test various types of engines to propel their airplanes.
  • Airmen and Chauffers, 1880 to 1898 – Two schools of thought arise on control. Should airplanes be balanced in the air by skilled pilots, or should designers create craft that are inherently stable?
  • The Road to Kitty Hawk, 1899 to 1903 – The Wright brothers experiment with a series of gliders, teach themselves to fly, and make the first controlled and sustained flights.




Otto Lilienthal, an engineer from Germany, tests both flat and cambered wing surfaces to measure their lifting capability. With his brother Gustav, the two begin a series of experiments aimed at gathering the engineering data need to build a successful glider.

Lilienthal's "whiling arm" apparatus, which he used to investigate the lift produced by wing shapes, was patterned after Cayley's 1809 instrument.

Otto Lilienthal.
1881 Louis Moulliard, France, writes another milestone in aeronautics, Empire of the Air, in which he proposes fixed-wing gliders with cambered wings, like birds. He also proposes that aviators practice in gliders to gain the skill needed to pilot an aircraft in the air – they should endeavor to become skilled airmen.  Up until that time, everyone in the infant field of aviation presumed you could navigate the sky with no more skill than a chauffer.   It split the field into two camps, each with a different approach to making a practical aircraft. The chauffers focus on engineering, making a stable powered flying machine. The airmen practice with gliders to gain piloting skills before attempting powered flight.

One of Moulliard's semi-successful gliders.

Mouliard's L'Empire de L'Air.

Siegfried Marcus,  a machinist, electrical engineer, and inventor from Vienna, Austria, patents the low-tension magneto, the first practical electrical ignition system for an internal combustion engine. This improved ignition system enables future gasoline engines to generate the horsepower, the torque, and especially the speed (RPMs) required to propel aircraft. This magneto is the most recent in a long series of improvements he has made to first primitive electrical ignition system that he installed on his 1864 engine.

A "low-tension" magneto.

The magneto was developed from another Marcus invention, the electrical igniter for explosives.
1884 After building and crashing an unpowered ornithopter (a flapping-wing aircraft) in 1883,  John J. Montgomery of California switches to fixed-wing aviation. He builds a monoplane glider  and makes the first gliding flight in America.

Alexander F. Mozhaiski, Russia, builds a steam-powered monoplane and tests it at Krasnoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. It takes off on a jump ramp and flies for approximately 100 feet before crashing. This is the second power-assisted take-off in history.

Horatio F. Phillips, England, experiments with cambered wings in a wind tunnel and lays down the scientific foundation for modern airfoil design. He is the first to discover that when the wind blows across a curved surface, it creates a low pressure area on top of the surface and high pressure beneath it. This, in turn, generates lift.

Charles Parsons, England, invents the steam turbine. Turbines are used first to generate electricity, then propel ships and boats. But Parsons' work will eventually lead to the jet aircraft engine.

Mozhaiski's aircraft featured propellers embedded in the wings.

Montgomery's first fixed-wing glider made a brief flight of about 200 feet (61 meters).

Phillips' sketches of airfoils, showing several of the cambered wing shapes he tested in his wind tunnels.

Parson's first steam turbine was connected to a small electric generator.

The turbine blades that Parsons designed were very similar to cambered wing surfaces.
1889 Octave Chanute, Illinois, presents two papers on the progress of aeronautical experiments to date.

Lawrence Hargrave, Australia, builds the first radial airplane engine. It has three cylinders and runs on compressed air. Hargrave uses it to power his experimental model aircraft.

March 1Orville Wright begins to publish The West Side News. Wilbur contributes humorous essays, news, and editorials. Paul Laurence Dunbar contributes poems and essays.

Hargrave's quadraplane was powered by a 3-cylinder radial motor that ran on compressed air stored in the fuselage.

The Wrights' West Side News.
1890 October 9 At Chateau d'Armainvilliers in Brie, France, Clement Ader, France, flies a bat-wing airplane, the Eolé, for about 164 feet (50 meters). The steam-powered, propeller-driven bat-wing craft rises only 8 inches (20 centimeters) in the air. The flight is unsustained and Ader has no means of directional control. Nonetheless, the Eole is the first manned aircraft to take off from level ground.

An illustration of Ader's Eole by Patrick Mallet. The historic aircraft was never as far off the ground as the artist suggests.

A cutaway replica of the
1891 Otto Lilienthal begins to test winged gliders, made from cloth stretched over willow frameworks.

Samuel Langley, Virginia, builds a successful rubber band-powered aircraft he calls an aerodome. He also begins work on larger steam-and compressed air-powered models,  but the first four do not meet his aerodynamic expectations and he makes no attempt to fly them.

OctoberOctave Chanute begins to publish articles on aviation in the Railroad and Engineering Journal. They will later be collected in a single work.

Lilenthal's first successful glider, his "No. 3."

The fuselages of Langley's first four aerodromes (numbers 0 through 3). These were never tested.
1892 Hiram Maxim, the American-born inventor of the machine gun, builds an enormous airplane with multiple superposed wings at his English estate. He uses the rig to measure the lift generated by different wing configurations as the rig rolls along a special track. The aircraft rig is not intended for free flight, instead the track is designed to capture the aircraft and after it rises a few inches off the rails.

Wilbur and Orville Wright purchase "safety bicycles" and open a sales and repair shop. They give a bicycle to their friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Hiram Maxim's enormous aircraft "test rig" had six tiers of detachable wings.

Maxim aboard his test rig.

Maxim's test rig rode on a sled along a 1800-foot (550-meter)track. It had a wingspan of 110 feet (34 meters), was powered by two 180-horsepower steam engines, and weighed 7,000 pounds (3175 kilograms).

Hiram Maxim predicts that even "under the most unfavorable circumstances, aerial navigation will be an accomplished fact inside of ten years."

Lawrence Hargrave, Australia, invents the box kite. Because the kite is remarkably stable and generates large amounts of lift, it creates a sensation in aeronautical circles, especially among the "chauffers." It's general form influences early airplane designers.

Edward Huffaker suggests that the reason curved wings produce more lift than flat ones is due to "Bernoulli's Principle," postulated by Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli.

August 1 through 4 Octave Chanute organizes the International Conference on Aerial Navigation at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. Wilbur and Orville Wright also come to the exhibition, but it's doubtful they attended the conference.

November-December Samuel Langely attempts to launch Aerodrome No. 4 twice from a catapult mounted on a barge. It fails to fly on both attempts.

Hargrave measures the tension on a box kite's tether line. From this, he could deduce how much lift was generated.

An overview of the World's Colombian Exhibition. Owing to the advanced agriculture, manufacturing, science, and technology on display, this is sometimes referred to as America's "coming-out" party.

In 1738, Bernoulli observed that the pressure inside a stream of fluid or gas decreases as its speed increases. Because the curve of a wing (the camber) causes the air flowing over the top of a wing to move faster than the air passing beneath, there is low pressure above the wing and high pressure beneath it. This difference in pressure is one of several physical effects that generate lift.

Langely's houseboat/catapult launched the aerodromes over the Potomac River south of Washington, DC. It was perhaps the first aircraft carrier.

Augustus Herring buys a glider from Otto Lilienthal. He then builds two of his own, attempting to improve on Lilienthal’s design.

Octave Chanute collects his articles on aviation and publishes them in a book, Progress in Flying Machines. It is the most complete and well thought-out work on aeronautics to date.

July 31Hiram Maxim makes a short, unintended hop-flight in his huge airplane when the craft breaks free of its restraining track.

September Otto Lilienthal is regularly making successful glides of notable distance and duration. He flights are the frequent subject of news stories, and McClure's magazine publishes a nine-page pictorial of Lilienthal flying several of his gliders. The article catches the eye of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Hiram's wrecked aircraft test rig. Apparently, the upper restraining rail broke while the craft was traveling about 38 mph (61 kph).

Plans for Lilienthal's "standard" glider.

To facilitate his  experiments, Lilienthal built a hill from which he launched his gliders. He named this "Flight Mountain."

Lilienthal in flight, from the September 1894 edition of McClure's.

Percy Pilcher, Scotland, builds a glider, the Bat. He also visits Otto Lilienthal to ask advice. He makes Lilienthal's suggested improvements, then flies the Bat again, but is not satisfied with it. Pilcher builds  two more gliders in quick succession, the Beetle and the Gull, making improvements based on his own gliding experience.

Edward Huffaker begins to work for Samuel Langley, designing wings for Langley’s Aerodromes.

Augustus Herring also works briefly for Langley, doing dynamic tests. Then he moves to Chicago and builds a Lilienthal-type glider for Octave Chanute.

James Means, Massachusetts, begins to publish the Aeronautical Annual.  It will last for 3 years.

William Avery, Illinois, builds a Chanute-designed multi-wing glider.

William Paul Butusov, a Russian immigrant living in Illinois, begins to build a bird-like aircraft for Chanute. He calls it the Albatross.

Pilcher's first gliding machine, the Bat, after he made some improvements.

Pilcher's second glider, the Beetle, was heavily built and hard to handle.

Pilcher's Gull, his third glider, was too large to fly safely.

Langley's aeronautical workshop in the Smithsonian would one day grow to become NACA, and later, NASA.

James Means' first Aeronautical Annual.

Percy Pilcher builds a much-improved glider, the Hawk, and glides up to 750 feet. Finally satisfied, he plans a powered version.

The Wright brothers begin to manufacture their own bicycles.

James Means, Massachusetts, writes in the 1896 Aeronautical Annual  that bicycling and flying present similar problems of control and balance.

May 6Samuel Langley tests a steam-powered model aircraft, Aerodrome No. 5, on the Potomac. It flies for 3,300 feet.

June 22Octave Chanute, Augustus Herring, William Avery, and others test a copy of a Lilienthal glider and Avery's multi-wing glider at the Indiana Dunes near Miller, Indiana on Lake Michigan.

August 9Otto Lilienthal dies in a glider crash.

August 21Octave Chanute, Augustus Herring, William Avery, and others test Butusov's Albatross and a new triplane glider designed by Chanute and Herring. The performance of the Albatross is disappointing and the triplane is difficult to control. But the experimenters remove a wing to make it a biplane and the glider starts to perform, eventually making flights up to 359 feet.

October — Upon hearing of Lilienthal’s death, the Wright brothers deduce correctly that the crash was due to a lack of control. As experienced cyclists, they understand control and balance, and are confident they can create an effective control system for an airplane. They begin a systematic search for literature on aeronautics.

November 28Samuel Langley tests another steam powered aircraft, Aerodrome No. 6. It flies for almost a mile.

The Pilcher Hawk about to be launched. It was controlled in the same manner as Lilienthal gliders. Pilcher kicked his legs to shift his body weight in the direction he wanted to go.

Chanute's camp near Miller, Indiana.

The most likely cause of Lilienthal's fatal crash was a stall. A gust of wind turned the airplane up and Lilienthal could not bring the nose down before he lost flying speed.

The Chanute-Herring biplane glider was the best flyer of the 1896 flying season.

The launch of Aerodrome No. 5. This aircraft and Aerodrome No. 6 have 14-foot wingspans, making them the largest powered airplanes ever flown.

The Chanute multi-wing Katydid was gentle and stable in the air, but it's performance was disappointing.

Butusov's Albatross crashed on its first flight.

Comparing the flight paths of the May and November 1896 Aerodrome flights.

SeptemberAugust Herring tests a biplane glider with a tail of his own design at the Indiana dunes.

October 12Clement Ader, France, builds another powered airplane, the Avion III,  funded by the French Ministry of War. He attempts to fly the aircraft before officials, but it never leaves the ground and the War Ministry withdraws its support.  Much later, Ader will try to claim that the aircraft flew about 1000 feet (304 meters), but the reports filed by the officials in 1897 do not back him up.

Herring's improved Chanute-Herring glider.

Ader's Avion III at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France.

Samuel Langley, Virginia, secures $50,000 funding from the War Department to build a man-carrying version of his Aerodrome by 1899. He hires Charles Manly as his assistant.

Wilbur Wright observes that buzzards control their lateral balance by twisting the feathers at the tips of their wings.

Ferdinand Ferber and Ernest Archdeacon, France, organizes the Aéro Club de France.

October 11August Herring flies about 50 feet (15 meters) in a biplane glider powered by a compressed air engine at St. Joseph, Michigan. Later, he flies 73 feet (22 meters).

Wilbur rode his bicycle out to a place called the "Pinnacles" overlooking the Great Miami River. There he observed turkey vultures or "buzzards."

Herring's 4 horsepower compressed air motor did not give his biplane enough oomph to sustain itself in the air.

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