RE Museum - History of Flight

Man Takes to the Air

Human beings have always wanted to fly like birds. Over the years many have tried by strapping wings to their arms and flapping them. But our arm and chest muscles are not nearly strong enough. When man eventually did learn to fly, in 1783, it was in balloons filled with hot air or hydrogen.

Fascination with flying persisted, however. In 1738, the Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli had put forward the fundamental law of fluid (gas and air) dynamics relating to pressure that eventually showed the way to wing design, and in the last year of the 18th century one man at least had begun to appreciate the forces involved in heavier-than-air flight.

He was the English engineer George Cayley, who sketched these forces on a silver disc in 1799. On the reverse of the disc, Cayley sketched a design for a glider, and five years later he built a model of it. But not until 1853 did he build a fullsized glider that could actually fly and carry the weight of a man.

Otto Lilienthal in Germany, and Octave Chanute and the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur) in the United States, in turn advanced the science of flight. It was the Wright brothers who took the next logical step and fitted a lightweight petrol engine of their own design to one of their gliders. On December 17, 1903,

Orville flew the machine, the Flyer, under power for the first time at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.
The Wright brothers' plane reached a speed of scarcely 30mph (50km/h), climbed only a few feet in the air and remained airborne for only a matter of seconds, travelling about 120ft (37m). There would virtually have been enough room for the entire flight to have taken place in the fuselage of a modern jumbo jet. Yet half a century later, flights of many hours became routine, and now supersonic airliners are flying twice as high as Mt Everest and transporting hundreds of passengers at speeds as fast as a rifle bullet.

Early Pioneers

The American Orville Wright piloted the world's first aeroplaneĀ  t Kittyhawk in North Carolina in 1903. About 420 years earlier, the Italian painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci had produced the first-ever design for an aircraft. His ornithopter was modelled on bird wings, and had a mechanism for the pilot to flap the wings using his arms and legs. But it would have been too heavy to fly.

Cayley's glider

British engineer Sir George Cayley (inset) designed the first workable aircraft, a model glider in 1804. In 1853 a full-sized glider was flown 500yds (460m) by Cayley's coachman.


In the 1890s, the German engineer Otto Lilienthal was flying gliders he had built of willow wands and waxed cotton cloth. After taking off from a hilltop, he was able to glide up to 750ft (230m).

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