Airplane History: From Icarus to the Wright Brothers and Beyond

Explore the multi-millennia epic journey from the early dreams of flight to the groundbreaking work of the Wright Brothers.
Christopher McFadden

From humble beginnings in ancient Greece, a long line of pioneers would work tirelessly over millennia until two brothers in a windy field at Kitty Hawk would make the dream of flight possible. Here we explore some of the major events in airplane history briefly. 


This article is not intended to be a comprehensive guide but rather a very brief overview. 

Why was the airplane invented?

Put simply: because it was believed it could be possible to fly. After all, man has dreamed of flying since time immemorial.

A better question might be, why did it take so long?

Man's dream of flying must have first begun by our ancestor's close observation of birds in flight. This led to centuries of very slow development in an attempt to directly emulate birds. 

Generations of inventors spent many years developing ornithopters, or machines that attempt to generate lift and propulsion with flapping wings. This dead-end would contribute very little to the development of aircraft and ultimately held back our understanding of aerodynamics for centuries. 

A breakthrough in thinking would begin in the 16th Century and come of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that allowed mankind to unlock the secret behind true heavier-than-air flight eventually. 

Who actually made the first airplane?

Humans have tried to come up with solutions for thousands of years. Since ancient Greece and the tragic story of Icarus, various inventors have come up with interesting concepts throughout time. 

For example, in 400 BC, Archytas was reported to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled the flying device. This early attempt at flight was supposed to have resembled a bird and was propelled, as some believe, using steam. 

If this tale is true, his invention was supposed to have achieved flight for around 200 meters or so. Little was achieved after that until the development of early gliders. 

Hints at early attempts are recorded by the 9th Century poet Abbas ibn Firnas and the 11th Century monk Eilmer of Malmesbury. These accounts point to some promising designs that ultimately seriously injured their pilots. 

The first concerted attempt to study aerodynamics began in the 16th Century. Leonardo da Vinci famously made some in-depth studies of the bird's wing around this time.

He even managed to design a man-powered aircraft in his "Codex of the Flight of Birds" compiled in the 1500s. Galileo Galilei, Christiaan Huygens, and Isaac Newton have all made huge contributions to our understanding of the relationship between resistance (drag), surface area, and the effects of the density of fluids soon after. 

Other scientists like Daniel Bernoulli, Leonhard Euler, and John Smeaton built on their predecessor's work to help explain the link between pressure and velocity.

The dedicated study of ballistics by George Cayley helped compile vital information on aerodynamics in the 18th Century, laying the foundations for the development of true aircraft designs. He was also an early pioneer of real aircraft. He defined the basic need for a successful flying aircraft to have dedicated systems for lift, propulsion, and control. He became the first experimenter to focus on fixed-wing aircraft.

history of flight da vinci
Reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci's Ornithopter. Source: slashvee/Flickr

The development of wind tunnels by Francis H. Wenham, John Browning, and Horatio Phillips provided a quantum leap forward in man's dreams to one day take to the air. For the first time ever, humans could systematically study and test the aerodynamics of objects.

In the 1870s, Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, completed the most important work in wing design since Cayley. 

"His detailed measurements of the forces operating on a cambered wing at various angles of attack provided precise bits of data employed by later experimenters—including, in the United States, the engineer Octave Chanute and the Wright brothers—to calculate the performance of their own wings. Having published the results of his research, Lilienthal designed, built, and flew a series of monoplane and biplane gliders, completing as many as 2,000 flights between 1890 and the time of his fatal glider crash in August 1896." - Encyclopedia Brittanica

But it wasn't until the turn of the 20th Century that true heavier-than-air flight was cracked by two brothers in the United States. The Wright brothers would carefully study the work of their predecessors.

Through trial and error and the use of a wind tunnel of their own design, the brothers eventually developed their 1902 glider. This was a breakthrough in aircraft design, whose fixed-wing design enabled the brothers to take the final step that so many had dreamed of. 

All it needed was a good propulsion system. The choice for them was obvious — the internal combustion engine. 

Employing the services of Charles Taylor, the brothers were able to design and build one of their own design. The 12.5 hp90 kg engine while not the most efficient nor advanced of its kind, was the last piece needed to achieve one of man's most important technological achievements. 

On the 17th of December, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers made the first powered, controlled, heavier than air flight ever with their "Flyer 1."  The rest, as they say, is history. 

How did the first airplane work?

The world's first true airplane, the Wright Brother's "Flyer 1," was a remarkable piece of engineering for its time. It weighed just over 600 pounds (272 kg) and had a 40-foot (12 meters) wingspan. 

"Flyer 1" was a biplane with its frame and wings constructed using a wooden frame covered in fabric. Like other biplanes that would follow it, the wings were separated using wooden struts or rods. 

The craft was powered using a gasoline engine of the Brother's own design. Bicycle chains and gears were used to transfer the engine's power to the wooden propellers to provide propulsion. Each of the "Flyer 1s" two propellors turned in opposite directions to keep the forward thrust balanced. 

The front of the aircraft had two elevators consisting of smaller wings that could be tiled up or down to provide lift or allow the craft to descend accordingly. These were operated by the pilot using control wires from the pilot's cradle. 

Two large rudders were placed at the rear of the craft to enable the craft to yaw from left or right. 

This setup enabled "Flyer 1" to remain airborne for a total of 12 seconds and travel around 120 feet (36.5 meters). By the end of the day, both brothers had a crack at the whip with Wilbur Wright extending this record to 852 feet (260 meters) in 59 seconds

The Wright brothers would later build on the success of "Flyer 1" to build "Flyer 2" and "Flyer 3." The latter creating an endurance record of flying over 34 miles (55 km) in 38 minutes on October 5, 1905. 

"In 1909, the Wright brothers formed the American Wright Company to manufacture airplanes for the US military. The brothers continued to experiment and modify their design until 1912 when Wilbur died of typhoid fever." -

When did airplanes become common?

Soon after the groundbreaking work of the Wright Brothers, many other inventors began to create their designs for aircraft. Military forces around the world also began to invest in aircraft, which culminated in the development of dedicated Air Forces, with the Royal Air Force being the oldest independent air force in the world today.

Aircraft design continued to adapt and change over time with biplanes giving way to monoplane aircraft used for military and civilian purposes. This would ultimately lead to the era of mass air travel around the 1950s. 

"By the end of the 1950s, America's airlines were bringing a new level of speed, comfort, and efficiency to the traveling public. But as flying became commonplace and jet aircraft began to replace piston-engine airliners, the air travel experience began to change. With the steady increase in passenger traffic, the level of personal service decreased. The stresses of air travel began to replace the thrill. Flying was no longer a novelty or an adventure; it was becoming a necessity." -