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There are conflicting views as to what was the first flying 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

Public Domain

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 significant.
  • 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 previously.
  • 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.

Public Domain

George Cayley - Governable Parachute

Scope of the entire claim

The people attempting to create the first flying machine were faced with many separate challenges, which required diverse skills.

  1. Develop theories on how flight works and invent a machine to fly. This requires the skills of a creative scientist.
  2. Construct the machine. This requires the skills of an engineer.
  3. 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 explorer.
  4. Trial and error. This requires someone with a lot of time and resources -- an investor.
  5. 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 hybrid.

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.

Public Domain

Traian Vuia - aircraft; 1906

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.

Public Domain

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.

Conclusion

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.

Public Domain

Lyman Gilmore - Drawing of the smaller first plane

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