Aviation:  Soaring Through the Development and Principles behind Flight
from Ancient Times through WWI
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


The desire to fly is as old as man itself- “Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest,” declares a Psalm writer (Psalm LV: 6). Mankind has always looked at the sky with a sense of passion, mystery, and desire.  He has reveled at the sight of birds soaring on the wind and longed to join them.  From the earliest dreamers to present day masterminds flight has developed into an intrinsic part of the human race. Despite apparent barriers, flight has always captivated men’s minds.  This paper’s purpose is to knock down those barriers and trace the development of flight from its the foremost imaginings to World War One.

Historical Background

 One could argue that flight has its origins in the religions of ancient civilizations.  Flying beasts or half bird, half animal creatures such as Pegasus were drawn.  The Hindu god, Garuda, was depicted as a half bird-half person who united the sky and the Hindu people.  The tomb of Rameses II (d. 1224 B.C.) depicts the Pharaoh standing on a tower with two outspread wings ready to fly.  Many religions rightly placed their divinities in the sky including Christian angels, Greek gods, and Asian flying guardians, all of which linked man to the mysterious blue.

Religious tendencies initiated the thought process on flight and laid the cornerstone for the scientific development of flight.  In the fifth century B.C. Archimedes observed his own buoyancy in a bath and hypothesized that if an object was put into a fluid, it is raised up by the force equal to the difference between its weight and the weight it displaces.  This was the basic principal behind balloon travel that Archimedes proposed 2,000 years before the first ascent of man in balloons.  In the third century B.C., the Romans developed a kind of windsock in the figure of a dragon that was to scare off impending enemies and empower the Roman troops.  Before the first millennium, the Chinese began the practice of flying kites, which became an important contribution to aerial invention.  In 1300, Marco Polo, after returning from his travels to China describes one of the first ascents of man.  The “flight” came from the ritual of Chinese businessmen that allowed them to determine the outcome of a prosperous merchant journey.  The ritual involved a drunkard tied to a huge kite made of cloth and wood, attached by ropes to a pole held by a crew in a vessel below.  The kite rises with the drunken man tied to it.  If the kite flies well, it signifies a bountiful journey and businessmen rush to place their goods on the departing ship.  If the kite does not fly well, the businessmen look for another vessel (Harrison 18). The Chinese also contributed to the development of flight with their invention of gunpowder and the rocket in the 9th and 11th centuries.  All of these ideas helped to shape the first discovery of elementary flight principals.

 Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the first to set on paper rational ideas concerning human flight and set the groundwork of aviation principals.  He composed over 400 references and additionally created 150 different flying machines.  One of his inventions included a toy helicopter whose wings were laid out in a circular pattern. The hindrance that kept this small helicopter from taking flight was a lack of power.  da Vinci also recognized that humans’ incapability to fly without aid was due to their size and the lack of muscles capable to support flight.  He developed the “orinithopter,” which was composed of two rocking beams with large flaps or paddles that were driven by the person’s arms and legs in unison.  A tail that was attached by wires to the aviator’s head controlled the “orinithopter”.  By moving the head, one controlled the direction in with this device turned.   Another invention produced by da Vinci was a parachute that would enable humans to descend safely from significant heights.  More than any other invention he created, Leonardo da Vinci will be remembered for extensively studying the key problems of aeronautics including, the structure of wings, carrying surfaces, landing gear, and devices for directional control.

Research Report

In 1873, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, conquered the next great feat in aerodynamic history.  The brother’s contribution to flight began when they first noticed that wisps of paper floated upwards away from the heat of a fire.  They started experimenting with paper bags, holding their open ends toward the fire.  When these bags were released, they floated up into the air.  The brothers were convinced they found a new lifting force and named it the “Montgolfier Gas”.  They carried out a set of experiments and designed the first balloon consisting of a 35-foot paper-lined linen balloon with a brazier burning straw, old shoes and rotten meat as the cargo.  On April 25, 1783, the balloon rose to the height of 1,000 feet and landed three-quarters of a mile away.  When word of this accomplishment reached King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette in France, they summoned the brothers to demonstrate the flight.  On September 19, 1783 they launched the brightly colored 20-meter high and 15 foot wide balloon carrying a cock, a duck, and a sheep.  This balloon soared for two miles in eight minutes to the Vaucresson Forest outside Paris.  After witnessing this feat, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier tethered the Montgolfier balloon and on October 15, 1783 rose 340 feet into the air and remained there for four minutes.  But, this thrill of flight was not enough for the adventurer Rozier.  On November 21, 1783, along with the Marquis d’Arlandes they flew for five miles at the height of 3,000 feet.  Throughout the next decade, improvements were made on the Montgolfier balloon.  Jean-Baptiste added a hole was at the top of the balloon to keep it from violently rocking during decent.  In 1821, “coal gas” a mixture of hydrogen and methane, replaced the old straw burning braziers.  Balloons also began to travel farther. In 1859, Americans were flying from St. Louis, Missouri, to Henderson, New York, a distance of 809 miles.  Balloons also played a part in the first aerial warfare.  The world’s first air force was the Compagnie d’ Aeronautiers, created on April 2, 1794, during the first coalition against the French Revolution. (Harrison 41)  French aeronauts used the balloons to spy on Dutch and Austrian troops.  Napoleon Bonaparte also made use of balloons in his many wars from 1797 and on.  During the United States civil war in 1862, balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe, carried vital messages to and from President Lincoln in Washington D.C.  Due to a lack of funds, balloons were ultimately grounded during the civil war.  Overall, the development of balloon changed the outlook on flight.  Before 1783 mankind was dreaming of flying and after that remarkable year men were known aviators.  Ballooning also increased man’s knowledge about the upper air, temperature and pressure changes in the atmosphere, which led to the development of devices such as the parachute to protect against the dangers of flight.

The invention of balloon travel was a revolution in the field of flight, and the Wright brothers led the next phase of this revolution into the modern era of aviation with the invention of the first heavier-than-air craft capable of controlled flight.  Wilbur Wright once stated, “I believe that simple flight at least is possible to man.  I am an enthusiast, but not a crank.  I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my bit” (Gunston 35).  It was this passion that fueled the Wright brothers desire to fly.  In 1892, using the engineering skills they developed in their bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright were busy developing their knowledge of different flight mechanisms.  The brothers believed that flight consisted of three concepts:  the shape of the wings, a means of powering the plane, and control.  From watching birds they reasoned that the control lay in the way the birds twisted their wing tips.  Using this knowledge, in 1900, they built a box kite and braced the wings so they could be twisted in opposite directions to make the kite turn.  This revolutionary breakthrough was called “wing warping.”  The box kite’s control mechanisms were tested at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  Over the next year they tested the box kite and kept meticulous notes on any changes made to the kite.  By reviewing these changes, they noticed that the wing design had a flaw in it.  They built a wind tunnel to test different wing shapes to see which wing produced the most lift.  For the first time, the Wrights produced accurate aerodynamic tables.  With the new information, they were able to produce a wing with the needed amount of lift.  To this they added a hinged tail rudder to increase the pilot’s control.  The Wrights also designed a small engine and realized that a propeller added to the engine would pull the plane forward.  On December 17, 1903, back at Kitty Hawk a local fisherman photographed the first flight.  Orville and Wilber Wright had realized their dream by completing four flights the longest of which lasted 57 seconds and traveled a distance of 852 feet.  A year after this first flight, the Wright brothers had proved to be masters of the sky by sustaining a flight that lasted 39 minutes.  On February, 10, 1908, the Wright brothers signed a contract with the U.S. Army Signal Corps with the agreement that they would construct a plane that could fly for an hour carrying two men, reach 40 mph, and be able to take enough fuel to cover 125 miles.

The Wright brothers were not the only ones working on the idea of flying an aircraft that was heavier than air.  In 1907, the Voisin brothers made six flights on the outskirts of Paris, France.  The Voisin’s plane had biplane wings, the tail in the back, and the propeller located behind the wings.  In France on October 10, 1907, Robert Esnault-Pelterie was the first to design and fly a monoplane that flew for a distance of 20 feet.  This remarkable new design was equipped with a single, broom-handle like control lever that could be maneuvered with one hand.  The lever moved side to side to control the warping of the wings and also forward and backward to control the climb and decent of the plane.  Another innovation was the enclosed fuselage that cut down on drag and the plane’s motor which was also located in the aircraft’s nose.   In London, on October fifth, 1908, Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail offered a sum of ?500 to the first person to fly across the English Channel. (Gunston 1911)  On July 25, 1910, the French pioneer Louis Bleroit would be the first to accomplish this feat.  He used the money he earned from his car headlamp factory to build a monoplane with the help of engineer, Raymond Saulnier.  Bleroit’s accomplishment sparked “a mania for new achievements in the air.” (Harrison 78)  One of these such achievements was Calbraith Perry Rodgers who was  the first person to cross the United States.  He took off near New York on September 17 and after navigating his way across the U.S. with stops for refueling and repairs, he landed near Long Beach, California on December 10, 1911.  On July 14, 1914, a German biplane piloted by Harry Oelerich reached a height of 25,755 feet.  In 1911, American flyer Harriet Quimby was the first woman to receive a pilot’s license in the U.S., as well as the first woman to fly across the English Channel.  The first commercial services began in Zepplin dirigibles in 19ll, and Florida opened up the first commercial airplane service.

These achievements propelled aviation into the foremost aspect of people’s lives.  However, instead of continuing to use these machines for leisure, they were quickly put to use militarily with the onset of history’s worst war of that time.  At the start of World War One, the task of aircraft was mostly used for military observation, which was called the Reconnaissance.  Some of the responsibilities of these planes included spotting artillery and directing guns, checking on the progress of ground operations and taking pictures of the front, and analyzing the changes in the disposition of the enemy.  Because these aircrafts were highly vulnerable to fighter attack, friendly fighter planes protected them. (Gunston 163)  Planes were also used to supply direct communication between troops.  In 1915, British planes at arranged points dropped messages during the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle.  (Magoun 384)  Aviation supply increased all over the world with countries battling against each other to create the fastest, highest-flying aircraft.  By the end of the war speed had increased from an average 126 mph to 172 mph. (Harrison 88) Organization of aircraft facilities had increased in leading countries.  The number of airmen in Germany increased ten-fold.   England, France, and Germany created the Royal Flying Corps in April of 1912. Upon entering the war in April 1917, the United States had 55 airplanes and not many more pilots.  By November of 1918, the U.S. had contributed 14,020 airplanes and around 10,000 pilots throughout the war.  During WWI the development of long range aircraft was used to attack urban and industrial centers in the enemy’s home country.  For example, on August 14, 1914, French airmen dropped bombs on Zeppelin housing sheds near Metz, Germany.  The shells were released not by hand, but for the first time by a device invented by Captain Mauger-Devarennes that releases “155 shells on the airship hangars, scoring direct hit” (Gunston 117).  The task of searching for the enemy ships was another roll of aircraft.  To do this, a plane had to fly from ships and thus, the aircraft carrier was created.  These planes could also utilize their position at sea to search and destroy enemy submarines.  The first of these carriers was tested in Pensacola, Florida.  On November 6, 1915, Henry C Mustin successfully launched his aircraft off of the USS North Carolina.  From 1917, both sides used low flying aircraft to attack enemy positions with machine guns and bombs during ground assaults.  In order to observe and attack the enemy, the opposing forces had to battle each other for command in the sky.  This was the task of the “aces” that practiced the art of “dogfighting” by skillfully maneuvering their planes to dive out of enemy fire.  One of the best dogfighters was German aviator Baron Manfred von Richthofen.  Nicknamed the Red Baron because of the color of his plane, he shot down a total of 81 enemy fighters.  On April 5, 1918, both sides were shocked to learn of his death by being shot down by a French dog fighter.  Even though WWI would come to pass, it would forever leave its mark on the development of aviation and the direction of aerial feats in the future.

Historical Significance

If the world had thought the twisting and turning of WWI “aces” was unbelievable, the decades to come would bring about spectacular advances undreamed of by the aerial “barnburners” of the day.  The world would shortly see the first solo non-stop fli ght across the Atlantic completed by Charles Lindbergh in May of 1927.  On January 12, 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Pacific.  Between 1939 and 19 45, the world would live through a second world war and though it claimed the lives on many people, the technology introduced in that war would pave the way for further advances in the field of flight.  Some of these advances include twin-engine jets, radar, long range weaponry, and turboprops.  After the war, in 1953, Lieutenant-Colonel Pete Everest became the first pilot to break the sound barrier.  On April 12, 1961, Soviet Flight-Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gararin became the first human in space shortly followed by Commander Alan Shepard Jr. on May 5.  On December 11, 1967, France unveils the Concorde 001.  It is the fastest plane of its time reaching speeds of 2.2 Mack or 1,450 mph.  On July 20, 1960 Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to land on the moon with travel provided by the rocket Apollo 11.  In August of 1980, Janice Brown succeeded in flying the Gossamer Penguin, a solar powered monoplane for two miles.  Even today advances in technology are shaping the aviation industry.  It is hard to believe that flight has advanced this far.  Any yet, flight seems ordinary today.  In a world where rockets are sent into the depths of space, supersonic travel, and commercial airliners taxiing people all over the world, one might wonder where to next- as they say, “The sky is the limit.”  Flight unites people all over the world.  It connects cultures and provides a network for the human race.  Poet Archibald Macleish put it best, “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on the bright loveliness in the eternal cold-brother who now they are truly brothers.” (Harrison, 294)


Harrison, James P. Mastering the Sky. N.p.: Sharpedon, 1996.

 Hunsker, Jerome C. Aeronautics at the Mid-Centure. Yale University Press: New Haven , 1952.

Launius, Roger D. Innovation and Development of Flight. N.p.: Roger D. Launius, 1999.

Walker, Ernest E. Aviation or Human Flight Through the Ages. N.p.: R.R.        Donnelley and Sons Company, 1939.

Magoun, F. Alexander. A History of Aircraft. N.p.: McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., n.d.

Aviation Year by Year. Ed. Bill Gunston. N.p.: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001.

Web Resources

http://www.si.edu The Smithsonian Institution website offers a link to their National Air and Space Museum.  This museum offers information on the history, science, and technology of aviation and space flight.

http://www.pbs.org The PBS website offers information on the Wright brothers and the first successful heavier than air flight.

 http://museumofaviation.org This website is filled with aviation history.  It illustrates different plane models used throughout the ages.

http://wingofhistory.org This website features facts about the different planes used throughout history and how they played a dynamic part in the development of aviation.

http://aviation-history.com The aviation of history website offers key steps in the development of flight.

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Megan Schmitt