There are conflicting views as to what was the
machine. There are many confident histories, with a large
numbers of supporters, that have different views.
The title of this article is about "First flying machine". Most people think
about the heavier than air, motorized flight when they think about the first
flying machines, but this title can include all kinds of flying machines.
Pilâtre de Rozier was the first to fly a balloon, and he was also the first
fatal accident in aviation history.
There are legends that the Chinese were the first to successfully put human
beings in the air, using manned kites for reconnaissance during wartime in the
1200s. But kites are tethered to the ground.
Claims to first flight by date
John Stringfellow's flying
machine in the Science Museum, London
- Abbas Ibn Firnas, Al-Andalus, first human glide — 875
- John Stringfellow, England — 1848
- George Cayley, England — first Western human glide 1853
- Jean-Marie Le Bris, France, first powered flight in 1856
- Alexander Feodorovich Mozhaiski, Russian Empire — 1884
- Clement Ader, France — October 9, 1890
- In 1890 the frenchman Clément Ader is said to have made the first manned,
powered, heavier-than-air flight, of 50 m, in his bat-winged monoplane. Ader was
maybe flying a motorized plane before Whitehead, but it was not publicized until
many years later, and it had been a military secret before. The french military
say that he flew 300 metres. Lack of documentation and publication, lack of
control of the aeroplane. That no further development followed is also
- Otto Lilienthal, Germany — 1891
- (23 May 1848 – 10 August 1896), the German "Glider King", was a pioneer of
human aviation. He is often credited with building the first successful
human-carrying glider, the Derwitzer Glider in 1891, but this distinction in
fact belongs to Sir George Cayley who accomplished this feat nearly forty years
- Gustave Whitehead, Germany/United States — August 14, 1901
- It seems that the first publicized flight with an aeroplane heavier than air
propelled by its own motor was Gustave Whitehead's flights in August 1901. It
was published in the New York Herald, and the Bridgeport Herald the following
Sunday. The event was witnessed by several people, one of them a reporter for
Bridgeport Herald. Children and youngsters who were present have since signed
affidavits about what they saw that day. He started on the wheels from a flat
surface, flew 800 meter at 15 meter height, and landed softly on the wheels.
- Lyman Gilmore, United States — May 15, 1902
- Richard Pearse, New Zealand — March 31, 1903
- Karl Jatho, Germany — August 18, 1903
- On August 18, 1903 he flew with his self-made motored gliding airplane. He
had four witnesses for his flight. The plane was equipped with a single-cylinder
10 horsepower (7.5 kW) Buchet engine driving a two-bladed pusher propeller and
made hops of up to 200 ft (60 m), flying up to 10 ft (3 m) high.
- Orville & Wilbur Wright, United States — December 17, 1903
- In the fourth flight that day, the only flight made that day which was
actually controlled, Wilbur Wright flew 279 meters (852 ft) in 59 seconds. The
Wright brothers had a photographer present and published the invention a few
years after the event. They had resources for further development of their
aeroplanes, and eventually became more known than other first flyers.
- Traian Vuia, Romania — March 18, 1906
- Jacob Ellehammer, Denmark — September 12, 1906
- Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazil/France — October 23, 1906
- Described himself as the first "sportsman of the air." He made the first
fully public flight, in Paris. His airplane, designated 14 Bis, is considered by
many to be the first to take off, fly, and land without the use of catapults,
high winds, or other external assistance.
George Cayley - Governable
Scope of the entire claim
The people attempting to create the first flying machine were faced with many
separate challenges, which required diverse skills.
- Develop theories on how flight works and invent a machine to fly. This
requires the skills of a creative scientist.
- Construct the machine. This requires the skills of an engineer.
- Fly the machine. This requires a pilot, which -- before flight is achieved
-- has to be someone intrepid, athletic and a quick learner -- the skills of an
- Trial and error. This requires someone with a lot of time and resources --
- Recognition. This requires attracting notice, organizing a forum to
demonstrate the invention and gaining publicity -- the skills of a marketer.
Many of the people that attempted to create the first flying machine
succeeded only in some of these challenges. Since all the challenges were
difficult, these are notable achievements, rightfully touted in their respective
cultures. But emphasizing one set of challenges or another leads to different
claims to the title of "first flying machine".
The earliest attempts focused on the first challenges; they couldn't make
much progress on the central challenges before the Industrial Revolution. Even
then, most attempts borrowed from others' earlier work and still left work for
others to finish. The next to last step, trial and error, can take years, and
ideas can go back and forth between different groups, consciously or not.
Since no one fully developed the first flying machine in complete isolation,
it seems no one person or group had all the skills needed. The best that can be
claimed is that certain inventions were pivotal steps to realizing the age of
flight. Even then, who first achieved which step can still be debated.
Debate on what was invented
This is a major source of controversy for early flying machines. There are
parachutes, kites, lighter than air craft (balloons/airships), gliders and
powered aircraft, which all have some ability to fly. The first use of each of
these is worthy of note. But the definition of each of these is not universally
agreed upon. The performance of some gliders was little better than slow
falling, and might be considered more a type of parachute. Most early flying
craft were light and fragile, and required the right wind conditions to fly. A
headwind can give a boost to their takeoff. A tailwind will lengthen the
apparent flight. Either might be considered unfair help from nature; almost
anything will fly if the wind is strong enough. Some powered aircraft still
needed a starting height or catapults to get them started, which might classify
them only as engine-assisted gliders. Some inventions focused only on staying in
the air, and had little or no ability to steer the craft, which makes them
useless for practical flight. Other controversies include airplanes that derive
some lift from attaching itself to other types of flying craft, becoming a
Debate on what was accomplished
Even the definition of "flight" is not agreed upon. If a given flight only
achieved a couple of metres of altitude, the craft may be taking advantage of
ground effect, which is an aerodynamic effect that adds lift when very close to
the ground. If the flight is only a few dozen metres in length, then it may be
more due to momentum than lift; these might be considered only "hops" and not
qualify as true flight. If the takeoff was from a height or was otherwise
assisted, then how much was due to the craft's own lift is debated even if the
flight was longer. The flight of a craft with little ability to gain altitude on
its own may not be considered a true powered flight. If the flight ends in a
crash, some discount the flight; the crash might be due to shortcuts taken in
the construction of the craft, reducing its function or strength, which made the
construction easier even if it made the craft impractical. There are other, more
technical details about flight that can be source of endless technical debates.
On the other hand, rather than specific, technical achievements, some claims
to flight are more general. With the myriad of different challenges surrounding
flight, succeeding in some is still an accomplishment. In truth, the more
successful inventors built on the works of those who preceded them; those that
did the earlier work deserve some credit. This is true even if their craft
didn't fly successfully, or was only prototype that wasn't flown, or was only a
model, a design, or just a sketch or theory. But saying "whose work helped
others..." is not as often claimed as titles like "Father of Flight" or
"Discoverer of Aeronautics". When designs, rather than flight are claimed, the
classification of the craft designed gets all the more debatable, as critical
details may be missing.
Traian Vuia -
Debate on veracity of claims
For a claim to be accepted there must be some credible evidence. The number,
quality and possible bias of witnesses are analyzed. There may be language and
cultural barriers to analyzing the witnesses' reports. There may be cultural and
philosophical barriers of the witnesses to overcome to even understand, much
less properly report, the event they witnessed. Inventors skilled at marketing
may be favoured because of more substantial evidence, even though such skills
aren't usually associated with inventing flying machines. There is even an
opposite effect, where a skilled "showman" can be accused of inflating claims or
even falsifying inventions. More weight is given to photos of the flight, even
though this favours claims taking place after the invention of photography.
The number of flights is used to evaluate some claims in relation to others.
If only a single flight was achieved by an invention, some dismiss this as a
fluke. The more flights achieved, the more credible the evidence becomes, even
though this favours inventors with more time and resources to invest. Damage to
the aircraft on landings, and even injuries to the pilot, can be severe setbacks
limiting the total evidence, even though they may be due to mere bad luck.
For inventors that focused on skills other than science, their inventions can
be dismissed because of the non-scientific nature of the evidence. To answer
this, there are sometimes attempts to provide the missing scientific aspects to
the evidence by recreations after the fact. In the more extreme cases, rough
sketches are turned into complete flying machines. But there is no way to prove
that the re-creators' modern knowledge didn't influence details of the
recreation, improving the original invention. The same problem arises when
aircraft are recreated in attempts to perform new test flights years later.
Various governments and other organizations will often only give some claims
an "official" approval in attempt to elevate one attempt over another, usually
in the interest of a national or cultural pride. A great deal of disinformation
and revisions can take place as well with some claims, both from individuals and
governments, to adjust the level of importance of some respective claims. Minor
mistakes or misinformation are sometimes widely reproduced without any further
investigation. In the worst cases, some histories fail to mention the fact that
counter-claims even exist, much less contrast them with a preferred claim.
Le Bris and his
flying machine, Albatros II, photographed by Nadar, 1868
Technical details of defining flight
Flight can be defined as simply not falling when in the air. To do this, some
force is needed to counter gravity. If a craft's countering force is not as
strong as gravity, then the craft still falls, although slower. To rise from a
starting point, the force must be greater than gravity. Since medieval times,
rockets were known to provide sufficient energy, but were usually seen as too
hazardous for manned experiments. The more common method involved a craft that
was, in total, less dense than air. Before treated or synthetic materials were
invented, balloons had to be made of many small pieces of natural materials,
which couldn’t be made completely air-tight. This limited all early lighter than
air craft to hot air balloons. However, such craft can only ascend and descend;
they have little or no ability to steer, only work well in cold weather, and
quite susceptible to drifting away in even light breezes. Although balloons fly,
they are of such limited use that people continued to search for something with
a more practical ability to fly.
While useful flight is distinct from falling, there are many grey areas
between them. Flying squirrels, for instance, can't sustain level flight, and
may be doing little more than falling, yet what they achieve is certainly
useful, since it is part of their natural adaptation for survival.
The type of falling that merely avoids injury on landing is usually termed
"parachuting". This simply requires increasing air resistance to the point where
terminal velocity is low enough to make landing safe. However, the slower one
falls, the greater time in the air, and the greater the influence of other
forces relative to gravity. This means it doesn't take much effort to achieve
distance from initial momentum, or even steering from minor adjustments to the
shape of whatever is providing the air resistance. In recent years, use of
parasails, hang gliders and similar craft have erased most distinction between
parachutes and gliders.
An aerofoil is a surface that adds lift when air moves over it. By the shape
of the aerofoil, the air over the top is forced to move faster than the air
under. Slower air has more pressure, so there is a net upward pressure on the
aerofoil, which is lift. The wings of most gliders and aircraft are aerofoils,
but kites use the principles of aerofoils also.
There are various methods of getting air to move over an aerofoil. Forward
motion makes the aerofoil move relative to the air. A headwind does the same. A
kite is held stationary by a string, and wind moves the air over the kite. A
helicopter uses rotating aerofoils. For flying machines that use aerofoils, the
method of getting the air to move is used by some to classify the invention.
Anything that falls can easily trade height for some forward motion, and get
lift from aerofoils. A glider is usually defined as an aerofoil craft that
relies on starting height rather than its own generated energy. But having an
internal source of energy (an engine) doesn't always mean it is an aircraft
rather than a glider; the engine may be so weak that it doesn't influence the
craft's flight. How strong does the engine have to be before it is considered a
true aircraft? A good breakpoint would be if the craft provides enough energy
that it doesn't lose speed or altitude for a long period. But taking off at the
start of a flight is a different situation; this often requires trading speed
for height even on modern craft. Treating the takeoff separate from the rest of
the flight has complications, as many craft needed ramps to help convert
potential energy to forward momentum, catapults to give an initial push, or a
starting height to allow a quick trade-off to forward motion. It is difficult to
determine how much influence these extra take-off assistances had on the rest of
the flight. Some craft didn't seem to need any obvious assistance, yet still
required a headwind to add to the effect of the aerofoils in order to take off.
Many people are certain about who invented the first flying machine, and are
surprised to learn there are contrary views as adamantly asserted in other
cultures. Some of these claims, when carefully compared, are found not to
actually conflict, as different parts of the challenges of flight are claimed.
But many claims do conflict, and are debated on either technical details of the
definition of the invention or accomplishments, or the vague area of the
relative importance of different achievements. Some claims are simply
disbelieved. A few of the claims have been mistakes, intentional or not.
This kind of controversy of invention is not limited to flight. For example,
debates over the tallest building tend to break into debates around what
constitutes a building and what is the most important measure of such
structures' height. In the same way some records of flying machines can come
down to the exact definition of what, for example, constitutes a "flying
machine", or "flight", or even "first".
No one single-handedly invented all of aviation. Early inventors made only
partial progress, while later ones built on their work. Most of these claims are
one that people can be justifiable proud of, but attempting to exclude all
others' claims often leads to nothing but accusations of bias.
Lyman Gilmore -
Drawing of the smaller first plane