Taking to the air

The history of aviation is a long record of man’s restless urge to emulate soaring eagles and swooping hawks, to escape the earth and reach the freedom of the skies.

Even though the air had been harnessed for centuries with aerodynamic devices such as the feathers on an arrow or the shape of a boomerang or used to power sailing ships and windmills, it took eons for the principles to be applied to human flight. In attempts to achieve human flight, mankind failed for millennium to put principles witnessed in bird flight and sail power into practical application. Let’s examine some of the steps taken to progress from myth to tower jumpers, from kites to gliders to arrive at the airplane in a short pre-history of flight.


In early legends and myths men and animals were depicted as having wings. Ancient tales of beasts or half-birds flying in the air may have been the beginning of humans’ infatuation with flight. Greek mythology tells of Pegasus, a flying horse and of Hermes with his winged sandals. Tales from the stories of Arabian Knights enchanted people with thoughts of transport on magic carpets.

The myth of Daedalus and Icarus depicted on an Italian woocut of 1493.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is an early tale of technological hubris. As the story goes Daedalus and his son Icarus, captives on the island of Crete, made wings of wax and feathers so that they could escape from captivity by flying away. But Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings melted, while Daedelus flew too low and crashed into the rocks, both dying in their attempts to fly.


Mankind’s first steps into the air came from not looking up but from looking down. These were the people who stepped into the air from castle walls and towers in which the only way to go was down. In these attempts, some sort of aerodynamic device was attached to the intrepid traveler, such as feathers, wooden wings, and early parachute type devices.

Chinese legend has it that Emperor Shun leapt from a burning roof by using two large reed hats as parachutes. The first documented tower jump was achieved around 852 in Córdoba, Spain, when an aerial adventurer attempted to use a large piece of cloth to slow his fall when he leapt from a high structure.

Another early story tells of King Bladud, who ruled in Britain in the ninth century. He supposedly constructed a pair of wings with which he proposed to fly. But, according to the monk Geoffrey of Monmouth in a history of the British kings, Bladud was dashed to pieces as he landed on top of the Temple of Apollo in the town of Trinovantum.

Early in the 11th century it is recorded that the English Monk Eilmer built a glider resembling bat wings attached to his hands and feet. The leap off the abbey tower resulted in a 200-yard glide and a crash landing. It was recorded that Eilmer had read and believed the fable of Daedalus.

These early efforts demonstrated that it was one thing to jump into the air from a wall or tower, and quite another to balance and control oneself in the air.


The earliest successful aerodynamic device was the kite. Though today mainly known as a toy, kites through the ages had been used to lift people for signaling, observation, to pull fishing boats, and carry scientific instruments aloft. Use of a man-carrying kite in China was witnessed by Marco Polo in 1282. Apparently a sailor was bound to a large kite and cast off the stern of a ship at anchor to test the winds.

This woodcut of a kite in Europe appeared in a book published in 1635.

When he returned to Italy, Marco Polo brought with him a Chinese kite, and wrote about kites in his travel reports. Later kites would become known thoughout Europe. The first printed illustration of a kite in Europe appeared in 1635. In 1827 the power of aerodynamic forces was demonstrated in England when a kite was used to pull a carriage between the cities of Bristol and Marlborough.

A connection between kites and aircraft came about because of the development of the box kite by Lawrence Hargrave of Australia. This twin surface kite would provide the basic structure of the biplane. A paper on his developments was presented by Octave Chanute at the 1893 Conference on Aerial Navigation held in Chicago. This basic design was used in Chanute’s 1896 glider and was seen on the early Wright brothers’ gliders.


With the advent of the glider, advancement in the study of aerodynamics and development of man-carrying machines progressed rapidly. Gliding was the earliest successful form of heavier-than-air flight.

Dramatic advances came about because of Sir George Cayley of England, one of the most influential people in the history of aeronautics. He may well be the first person to understand the underlying principles of the forces of flight as in 1799 he described the effects of lift and drag and designed a man-carrying monoplane glider.

A drawing of a Cayley glider appeared on the cover of Mechanics’ Magazine in 1852. The caption called it a “Governable Parachute." (All Photos courtesy Museum of Flight).

In 1804 Cayley designed and built a hand-launched glider that today can be recognized as a modern-shape aircraft with a monoplane wing mounted at a high angle of attack, a cruciform tail and a movable weight to shift the center of gravity. The following year he discovered that a dihedral wing improved stability. Cayley later built a full-sized glider based on his 1799 design, and tested the device with a 10-year old boy aboard – the first glider rider. In 1853 he built an even larger machine and had his coachman aboard when he tested the device.

Otto Lilienthal of Germany was the first to regularly fly using a glider. Lilienthal used weight shifting, moving his body, to balance and control the glider. This proved to be very unstable as after more than 2,500 flights, Lilienthal would die following a crash.

In America Octave Chanute began developing a glider based on the design of the Hargrave box kite. For increased stability he added an aft tail structure with a cruciform tail shape. The Chanute gliders made hundreds of flights and flew as far as 350 feet.

It was the Wright Brothers’ concept of three-axis control that gave the glider an important breakthrough in aerodynamic control. They first tested their ideas on a Hargrave type box kite and later their first man-carrying gliders. The first testing of the Wright glider was done as a kite with the aircraft tethered by ropes. So one may consider the first gliders as untethered kites.

The third Wright glider of 1902 was so successful that they were able to make nearly 1,000 flights. The experience with this glider was so promising that the Wright’s believed all they needed now was an engine. The 1903 Wright Flyer was an enlarged version of the 1902 glider powered by a 12 horsepower engine. The promise of powered, manned flight was demonstrated on Dec. 17, 1903, and, as they say, the rest is history.


Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.




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