The Century Before: 1854 to 1879
Powering Up

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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.




1857 Jean-Marie Le Bris, a French sea caption, tests a glider modeled after an albatross. This "artificial bird" makes one short successful glide, but on the second glide it crashes and Le Bris breaks his leg.

Felix Du Temple and his brother Louis, France, fly a model monoplane whose propellers are driven by a clockwork spring and later, a small steam engine. It takes off under its own power, flies a short distance, and glides to a safe landing. It is the first successful flight of a powered aircraft.

A top and rear view of Le Bris' first glider. Although the wings were bird-like, the fuselage was decidedly fish-shaped.

The patent drawings of Du Temple's 1857 model airplane. Note that this is a "tractor" airplane, with the propeller at the front pulling the aircraft. The success of this model was the beginning of the standard tractor design tradition.
1863 Jules Verne publishes Five Weeks in a Balloon, describing an aerial trip across Africa filled with danger and adventure. His first novel launches both the science-fiction genre in literature and Verne's career as one of the most popular authors on the planet. This and many of his future books include captivating feats of lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air transportation. More important, they encourage a generation of future scientists and engineers to consider the possibilities of aviation.

Jules Verne.

An illustration from Verne's Cinq Semaines en Ballon.
1864 Count Ferdinand d’Esterno, France, publishes the first scientific observations of the effects of the wind on a wing in his pamphlet Du Vol des Oiseaux.  The paper also distiguishes between flapping and soaring flight, and notes that only the larger, heavier birds soar. The Count considers this fortunate: "...the odds are not stacked against humans doing the same thing in a fair wind." He suggests that soaring could be a wise and necessary step on the path to manned flight.

Siegfried Marcus builds an internal combustion engine with a carburetor (that he calls a "vaporisater") and an electrical ignition system that uses a primitive magneto to generate a spark.

d'Esterno's "soaring machine" was a cross between a fixed-wing aircraft and an ornithopter. The fronts of the wings were fixed, the trailing edges flapped.

Marcus' engine was later mounted on a wagon to produce the first automobile with an internal combustion engine.
1866 The Royal Aeronautical Society is founded in England.

Francis Herbert Wenham, England addresses the first meeting of the Aeronautical Society. His speech, titled Aerial Locomotion, is another milestone in aeronautics. He builds upon d'Estern's suggestions and proposes that aspiring pilots should practice first in gliders before trying to fly powered aircraft. His own multiple-wing gliders have little success.

The logo of the RAS.

Some of Wenham's glider designs.
1867 April 16Wilbur Wright is born in Millville, Indiana to Milton and Susan Wright. Milton is a "circuit preacher" for the Church of the United Brethren and will eventually lead his own sect of that faith.  When later asked what he remembered about Wilbur's birth, Milton commented on the enormous size of his head.
He also recalled that Wilbur had an enormous capacity for mischief.

By the time this photo was taken, Wilbur's body seems to have caught up with his head.
1868 Jean-Marie Le Bris tests an improved version of his glider, making several unmanned glides before it crashes.

The Great Aeronautical Exhibition, the first exhibition of flying machines, takes place at the Crystal Palace in London, England. It's sponsored by the Royal Aeronautical Society.

John Stringfellow, England, proposes a man-carrying triplane, similar to Henson’s aerial steam carriage. It captures the public’s imagination, although the model does not perform well when tested.

The great Aeronautical Exhibition of 1868. Note that Stringfellow's triplane is prominently displayed. The design, particularly the superposed wings, had a long-lasting influence on aviation.

Le Bris' improved glider. This is the first photo ever taken of a fixed -wing aircraft.

Stringfellow's unsuccessful but influential triplane.

1870 Alphonse Penaud, France, invents the "torsion motor, " using twisted rubber bands to power miniature flying machines. This simple invention is a boon to new science of aeronautics, providing experimenters with  a method to test and refine their ideas without investing the time and expense to build full-size aircraft. His first flying model is a variation on an old toy, a miniature helicopter. It’s copied by dozens of toymakers in Europe in America.

Penaud's rubber band-powered helicopter. A single rubber band turned both propellers in opposite directions.

Alphonse Penaud.

Alphonse Penaud builds what he calls a "planophore," a 20-inch long monoplane with a pusher propeller powered by a rubber band. It flies 131 feet in 11 seconds — the first flight of an inherently stable powered aircraft.

August 19Orville Wright is born in Dayton, Ohio.

Francis Herbert Wenham and John Browning, England, invent the wind tunnel. They use it to prove that cambered wings produce more lift than other shapes.

Orville Wright was the sixth child born to Milton and Susan Wright.

To provide longitudinal stability, the elevator surfaces of Penauds "planaphore" were set at a slight negative angle of attack to keep the nose up. The wings were set at a dihedral angle to one another for lateral stability and to keep the aircraft from rolling.
1873 Clement Ader, France is an inventive electrical engineer who will soon become one of the pioneers of the telephone industry. His real passion, however, is aviation. He builds a bird-shaped glider with goose-feathered wings, tethers the aircraft to the ground, then lies prone upon the glider and lets it rise to the limits of its ropes. He does not make free flights. But the tethered ascents fill him with enthusiasm and he spends the next 17 years developing a light-weight steam engine and building a powered aircraft.

Clement Ader.
1874 Building on his successful 1857 design, Felix Du Temple and his brother Louis create a man-carrying steam-powered monoplane with a 40-foot (12-meter) wingspan and an innovative 6 horsepower engine of their own design. With a young French sailor at the controls – he could regulate the angle of the tail and the rudder – the aircraft rolls down an incline to a ski-jump and makes a brief hop. But it hasn't enough power to sustain flight. Nonetheless it was the first attempt at manned powered flight in a fixed-wing airplane.

Du Temple's 1874 monoplane had several innovative features. The wings were set at a dihedral angle and most of the weight was forward for stability. The landing gear was retractable and could be adjusted to change the angle of attack during take-off.

Felix du Temple.
1875 Thomas Moy demonstrates a large but unmanned "Aerial Steamer" at the Crystal Palace in London. It makes at least one flight in which it lifts a short distance off the ground, an impressive feat since it weighs 120 pounds (54 kilograms). However, he is unable to secure funds to continue his aviation experiments. He comments, "I do not expect my countrymen to wake up to the importance of this subject during my lifetime."

Moy's "Aerial Steamer."

The cast-iron-and-glass Crystal Palace was Britain's showcase until it burned in 1936.
1876 Building on the work of  Marcus, Lenoir and others who are experimenting with internal combustion engines,  Nikolaus Otto invents a powerful, efficient engine that runs on gasoline. The secret of its efficiency is the four-part cycle on which it operates. As the piston leaves the cylinder, it (1) draws in vaporized fuel. It then re-enters the cylinder, (2) compressing the vapor. (3) The vapor is ignited, forcing the piston out of the cylinder again, then the piston (4) pushes out the burned gases as it returns. This becomes known as the Otto cycle or "suck-squeeze-bang-blow."

Otto's first four-cycle engine had a single cylinder. The fuel was ignited when a door slid open at just the right moment to expose the compressed vapors to a live flame.

When Otto built his first engines, gasoline was sold by apothecaries as a liniment.
1878 Bishop Milton Wright, then living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brings home a Penaud-type helicopter for his sons. They quickly wear out the fragile toy (which they refer to as a "bat"), then begin to build their own copies. Caught working on a bat at school when he should have been studying, Orville tells his teacher that he and his brother Wilbur plan to build a large enough machine to carry the both of them into the air. But when they build a larger model, it doesn’t fly. They won't understand why until much later in life.

Bishop Milton Wright.

Orville drew this sketch of the "bat" in 1928.
1879 Victor Tatin  demonstrates a model monoplane for the French military at Chalais-Meudon. The airplane has two tractor propellers driven by a compressed-air engine. The fuselage, in fact, is a tank that stores the air at a pressure of almost 300 psi (20 ksc). The airplane takes off on its own, flies on a tether around a circular track until the compressed air is exhausted, then glides to smooth landing.

Testing Tatin's compressed air-powered model airplane.

Top and side view of Tatin's airplane. Note the pressure guage on top ot the fuselage/tank.

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