Many people erroneously believe that the Wright brothers made the first aircraft. While the plane they flew in Kittyhawk was certainly the first fully automated aircraft to achieve sustained flight, it definitely wasn’t the first aircraft ever. We hope to do away with little misconceptions like this which seem to plague our favorite topic in the world. However, to give you an exhaustive history of aviation would take a lot of time and space that we just don’t have right now. A brief summary of key events, points in time and facts related to the field is definitely something that we can give to our readers though.
While the rickety plane Orville and Wilbur put together is certainly one of the most unique aircrafts in the history of aviation, it does not mark the beginning of the field. For one, people have been using hot air balloons to float around in the sky for hundreds of years now, as far back as 1783 when Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier achieved the first unmanned balloon flight in Annonay, France. The craft was unmanned, but would you climb into something if you had no idea whether the thing would fly or crash and burn? Smoke was used as a lifting agent initially, because hot air wasn’t yet understood.
Believe it or not, the French were also responsible for the first manned balloon flight as well. Later in 1783, Jean Pilatre de Rozier flew about 5.5 miles over the span of 20 minutes on November 21st. Considering the only other means of propulsion back then was going on foot, horse or boat, and all of these were slower, it was a fairly monumental occasion. Like seacraft though, this first manned balloon was totally at the mercy of wind currents, which is an issue that still plagues balloon travel today. But without these first steps we wouldn’t be where we are now, so they’re important to remember.
At this point in time, flyers were still using smoke or hydrogen gas to act as a lifting agent. This practice actually continued for more than a hundred years, until the fatal day the Hindenberg exploded in the sky. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. It would take nearly 60 years from these first successful flights before the first air travel company tried to appear. The Aerial Transit Company headed by William S. Henson and John Stringfellow never got past the Articles of Incorporation stage, but it was the first serious attempt to start a business based on aviation.
If those two men didn’t try and fail back then, we may not have couriers like FedEx and UPS flying packages around the world today, believe that. We certainly wouldn’t have seen the invention of the first dirigible in mid-1852, which was a successful attempt at giving flyers more control over their aircraft and, therefore, making the thought of delivering goods via the sky more than a pipe dream. Steam power was the name of the game at this point in time, and Henri Giffard (another Frenchman) flew the first coal-fired, steam-powered, controllable aircraft the world had ever seen.
Though this next historical first doesn’t really focus on aerial travel, it wouldn’t have been possible without all of the advances leading up to the time when it occurred, so it still deserves a place in this short history. In 1860, Samuel Archer King and William Black made history together by taking the first aerial photographs of the world below. These pictures of Boston, Massachusetts still exist today, though they’ve certainly degraded over time. You can look them up on any decent search engine and find them in a hot minute if this piques your interest – we understand, and we can wait.
You back? Great. Next in our short history of aviation is an event that many people are familiar with, even those who aren’t real aircraft enthusiasts. If you recall your history books from back when you were in school, you’ll remember that Orville and Wilbur Wright had their history-making heavier-than-air machine flight back in 1903. There were actually several flights, and the last of them, the fourth, saw Wilbur clearing 850 feet over the course of just less than a minute, 59 seconds by their count. This happened on December 17th, which makes the day a kind of unofficial holiday for aviators all over.
Aviation facts such as those provided here are easy enough to look up and verify for yourself if you don’t believe us – not that we’re saying you don’t, but anyone who studies history should know the benefit of checking multiple sources, rather than just listening to a single one. This is true whether you’re talking about the history of aviation or the history of the world. Getting back on point though, the next major aviation event occurred in 1908, when the Wright Brothers’ plane blew a propeller and crash landed, injuring Orville and killing his companion, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge of the US Army.
Not all events in a given history are going to be cheery ones, and that massive failure reminds us of that. It also reminds us that primitive planes were far more dangerous than the highly advanced machines we rely on now to carry us and our packages around the world at high speed. Although the militaries of the world had taken an active interest in aviation as far back as the 1800s, the first actual use of the air raid occurred early in 1915, when German zeppelins bombed four England communities to dust. This brings another fact about history to mind – if a peaceful thing can be weaponized, it will be.
What aviation enthusiast doesn’t know the tale of Charles Lindbergh, who flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in the first ever successful solo flight to clear the ocean? This happened in 1927. Since then, men and women have been pushing flying machines to their limits, looking to make and break records as technology improves and aircraft become more and more capable. This isn’t to say there haven’t been any monumental events since the 1920s, but if you’re interested in more recent history, there are better resources than us.