Aviation history : The scientific visionaries or those men before the Wrights


Much of what Wilbur and Orville Wright accomplished was highly original. However, the findings of several key 19th-century experimenters provided useful pieces to the puzzle and saved the Wrights from pursuing many unfruitful avenues of research. The scientific spirit and technological resources derived from the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century were giving experimenters a new sense of purpose. Although gliders had been scientifically designed and tested with limited success since the beginning of the century, it became apparent that a sufficient source of motive power would be required for the sustained, powered flight of man. As early as the 1780s, American James Watt designed and built steam engines that were practical in their use to propel wheeled land vehicles. Until the mid 1800s, steam engines were essentially refined versions of Watt's simple steam boilers.



(People’s Republic of Kampuchea)

   7 August 1987

1843 Cayley’s design combining helicopter and conventional aircraft


In England, Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) is recognized both as the inventor of the aeroplane and one of the aviation’s most significant pioneers; his work earned him the title of Father of Aeronautics or Father of Aerial Navigation. In 1799, he set forth the concept of the modern aeroplane as a fixed-wing flying machine with separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control. In 1804, he built a model glider with fixed wings and movable tail control surfaces, corresponding to a layout of the modern aircraft. In 1809, Cayley wrote On Arial Navigation which shows that a fixed-wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly. In 1843, he published a drawing of a convertiplane; it featured four helicopter screws, each with eight blades to provide lift and acting also for forward motion and had a tail to control stability; this strange aircraft perfectly forecast the modern aircraft of this type. In 1853, he recorded a glider flight that carried a boy, becoming thus the first to make a flight in a heavier-than-air craft.

It's clear that Cayley had well understood the problem of controlled flight and had identified the four forces that act on any heavier-than-air vehicle flying in an atmosphere: weight, lift, drag and thrust. What was left was the design of a power source. As early as 1808, Cayley designed and experimented with a calorific engine which burned gunpowder as the fuel; but he was never able to make a working engine; hence, he confined his flying experiments to gliding flight. Cayley was the source of inspiration for many 18th and 19th century aviators; Wilbur Wright quoted in 1909 that “Cayley carried the science of flight to a point which it had never reached before.”


Sir George Cayley and a model of his design for the convertiplane, a combination of helicopter/airplane, called Aerial Carriage (1843).

George Cayley: Sketch of the monoplane glider, called Governable Parachute (1852).



William Henson and his monoplane in the background (1842).

Still in England, William Samuel Henson (1812-1888) continued along the path Cayley had outlined; working with a talented engineer named John Stringfellow (1799-1883), he conceived an aircraft in 1842 which he named the "ARIEL Henson Aerial Steam Carriage", whose design was a brilliant preview of the modern airplane and for which he received a patent in 1843; it was a large passenger-carrying steam-powered monoplane, with a wing span of 150 feet. It was the first time that a complete, powered, heavier-than-air craft had been designed, using the technology available at that time. Despite its faults, the aircraft design was that of a successful, even modern, airplane; however, on its first try, the engine couldn't withstand its size and the Ariel never got off the ground. After Henson went to America in 1947, Stringfellow independently continued Henson's aeronautical research and produced the first steam-driven model monoplane ready to fly in 1848; he finally managed to launch this aircraft. Stringfellow's 1848 model experiments employed a miniature lightweight steam engine.


Romania 2004 - Centenary of Nobel Prize awarded to the Institut de droit international.

In 1837, Cayley had attempted to form an Aeronautical Society to reflect the growing subject of aeronautics and the science, but without success. In 1863, the Société d'Aviation was founded in France to encourage the development of heavier-than-air flight; this was followed by the formation of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain (renamed the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1918) in January 1866, which organized the First World Aeronautical Exposition held at the Crystal Palace, London between 25 June and 4 July 1868, at which Stringfellow exhibited his latest steam-powered model triplane.

The question of an effective aeronautical propulsion mechanism became the subject of exchanges during seven (six in Europe and one in the USA in 1893) international conferences held near the end of the 19th century, the first of these Congrès internationaux d'aéronautique being held in Europe from 31 July to 3 August 1889 in Paris, coinciding with the 1889 World's Fair. Several judicial questions were included on the agenda of this first Conference. More details on these can be obtained by clicking on the following link: International Aeronautical Congresses.

A private association of eminent jurists, the Institute of International Air Law, was created in 1873 in Gent, Belgium; in 1880, the agenda of the Institute for its Convention held in Oxford, England included aviation. From 1891 to 1896, the first treatises dealing with the legal aspects of aviation were published in Italy, France and Germany. Definitively, internationalism in aviation was in the winds.


Full-scale replica of the Storm Wing Glider built in 1894 by Otto Lilienthal, as seen at ICAO Headquarters, Montréal, donated by Germany in 1998.

A breakthrough in aviation came with the work of the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), who was the first aviation pioneer to develop theory and then put it into successful practice. He became known as the Flying man. His greatest contribution was in the development of heavier-than-air gliders. He undertook the most important studies of wing design since the time of Cayley and discovered that cambered wings were necessary for maximum lift. Between 1891 and 1896, he recorded over 2,000 flights with the beautifully constructed hang gliders which were partially controlled by movements of his suspended body, much like modern hang gliders, providing stability and directional control. In 1889, he published a book entitled Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegkunst (Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation) on the flight of birds that outlined his theories and which became one of the classics of aviation. A full-scale replica of the 1894 Sturmflügelmodell glider (Storm Wing Glider) by J. Jung can be seen in ICAO’s Museum at its Headquarters in Montreal. The father of the Wright Brothers’ success was undoubtedly Otto Lilienthal. Had he lived, it's entirely possible that he might have been the first to develop the airplane, as his work greatly inspired the Wright Brothers.


At the same time, Frenchman Clément Ader (1841-1925) started the construction of his first flying machine in 1882, the Éole (in honour of the Greek god of the winds); it was a bat-like design run by a lightweight steam-powered engine of his own invention with a wingspread of about forty-six feet. On 9 October 1890, Ader attempted a flight of the Éole, which succeeded in taking off and flying a distance of approximately 50 m; this was the first piloted powered heavier-than-air aeroplane in history to raise itself from the ground, 13 years before the Wright Brothers. It was powered by steam, which drove a four-blade propeller. In the following years, Ader developed and improved the Eole (Avion I) by building Zéphyr (Avion II, which Ader never completed) and Aquilon (Avion III) in 1897. The three machines were called by Ader Avion from the Latin word avis (meaning bird); “avion” became the French word descriptive of the power-driven heavier-than-air aeroplane. Ader is also known as the Father of Aviation.


Paraguay – 24 April 1979 - History of aviation

75th Anniversary of civil aviation and 35th Anniversary of ICAO

First day cover - Clément Ader and his Éole (1890).

Octave Chanute’s gliders.


On the other side of the ocean, two names stood out in the USA, i.e., Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley.

Besides designing and building a most successful biplane hang glider in USA, French-American Engineer and pioneer Octave Chanute (1832-1910) collected and collated a vast amount of information on aviation developments, which he produced in 1894 a book whose title was Progress in Flying Machines, which was regarded at that time as the very compendium of fixed-wing heavier-than-air aviation research published up to that time and later exercised a great influence on the Wright Brothers. At the World's Columbian Exposition in held Chicago in from 1 to 4 August 1893, Chanute organized the highly successful International Conference on Aerial Navigation. Chanute and a handful of assistants tested a series of gliders during the summer of 1896; they weren't truly experiments but public demonstrations of the state of the art. They were enormously successful; one of the gliders flew almost four hundred feet. Chanute collected a significant number of aerodynamic data after performing more than seven hundred successful glider flights through 1897. In the spring of 1900, Chanute received a letter from Wilbur Wright requesting information on an aeronautical problem. This marked the beginning of a long friendship between the two pioneers. The Chanute glider provided Orville and Wilbur Wright a starting point for their own structural design.


Sierra Leone - 40th Anniversary of ICAO

Samuel Langley's "Aerodrome A" aircraft

The other prominent pioneer in the USA was Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) who started experimenting aviation in the last decades of the 19th century. He became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887 (until 1906) and scored his first significant success on 6 May 1896, when his steam-powered free-flying tandem-winged Aerodrome No. 5 (his fifth design) flew for ninety seconds covering three quarters of a mile, before running out of fuel. Langley chose a floating houseboat as his launching platform, fitted with a spring-powered catapult and anchored on the Potomac River, Washington, D.C. It was powered by a naphtha-fired steam engine. On 28 November 1896, another successful flight was made with a similar model, the Aerodrome No. 6, much like the No. 5 except for having rounded wing tips. It was flown a distance of approximately 1,460 m.

For the first time, a large flying model unpiloted with a self-contained power plant had remained in the air for some length of time. Based on this success, Langley was able to obtain substantial funding from the Smithsonian Institute to build a powered aircraft capable of being controlled by a pilot. He called upon his assistant Charles Matthews Manley to build a gasoline engine. Langley’s two attempts of flying with the large Aerodrome A on 7 October and 8 December 1903 were unsuccessful, as the aircraft crashed in the Potomac River right after their launches. But one of the most remarkable aspects and great achievement of the Aerodrome A was the engine, a water-cooled five-cylinder radial gasoline engine that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower. Langley blamed the launch mechanism. While this was in some small measure true, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error. This second crash ended Langley's aeronautical work entirely.

Could the 1903 Langley’s Aerodrome have flown? The question remains open! Langley produced in 1891 a book whose title was Experiments in Aerodynamics, which reported on his early experiments in what he provisionally called aerodromics; this book will be of great interest for the work of the Wright Brothers.

With money exhausted and public opinion running heavily against him, Langley reluctantly abandoned his quest for powered, manned, heavier-than-air flight; but he almost beat the Wright Brothers. Nine days after Aerodrome A's last failure, Wilbur and Orville Wright would achieve a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight with an operator aboard.

Langley coined the word "Aerodrome" and applied it to the series of tandem wing aircraft that were built under his supervision by Smithsonian staff. The term is derived from Greek word εροδρόμος composed of ήρ (aêr, air) and δρόμος (dromos, course or race, running), literally meaning "air runner". From 1909, the word designates an airport in analogy with hippodrome, and its usage remains more common in the UK and Commonwealth nations to name an airport.


Many researches and experimentations before 1900 led inexorably to the development of a lightweight internal combustion engine, the indispensable tool for powering viable flights.