The Century Before

Home    History Wing    Adventure Wing    Exhibits & Programs    Company Store    Information Desk


History Wing 

A History    
of the Airplane 


  The Century    
(You are here.)      

  The Decade    

  Pilots, Planes    
And Pioneers

Who Was First? 


The First     

Powering Up  

Airmen and     

The Road to     
Kitty Hawk  


Need to    

find your    


Try these    
navigation aids:    

 Site Map 

Museum Index 

the Museum

 If this is your first    
visit, please stop by:     

the Museum

Something to share?     

Contact Us 


  Available in Française, Español, Português, Deutsch, Россию, 中文, 日本, and others.

he story of the invention of the airplane begins about a century before the Wright brothers' first flight. We've divided this time period into four parts:

While many people made important contributions to the development of the airplane during the century before the first sustained and controlled flights, there are five people who stand out. These folks set the stage and helped create the scientific culture in which the Wrights worked.

Sir George Cayley, an English baronet, first conceived the idea of a fixed wing aircraft in 1799, then built the first successful model (unmanned) glider in 1804. A conscientious scholar, he conducted the first controlled experiments in aviation, proposed aeronautical theories, and raised the quest for flight from a fool’s hope to a true science. In 1810, he wrote  On Aerial Navigation, the first scientific work on aeronautics. In 1853, near the end of his career, he designed, built and successfully tested a manned glider. It reportedly carried his coachman for several hundred feet down the slope of a hill near Scarborough, England.

  Pre-Cayley Airplanes

Caylley's original design for a fixed-wing airplane, first published in 1810 was remarkably modern with a canoe-like fuselage, cambered wings, and a cruciform tail. It only lacked sensible propulsion – Cayley suggested it be "rowed" across the sky with wing-like oars.

Humble beginnings: Cayley's model glider of 1804 – the first scientifically designed fixed-wing aircraft –  was a kite on a stick.

Sir George Cayley.
Jules Verne not only invented the literary genre of science fiction, he helped invent a culture the best described as "science hope"the expectation that science would continue improve life in general. His books were more widely read than any others in history, save the Bible and the Qu'ran. They encouraged mid-nineteenth century folks to think about the possibilities that science offered — and to expect that these possibilities would soon become realities. His first successful novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, was about flight; and his most successful novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, included travel by air. In Master of the World, the characters discuss the relative merits of lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft. Verne comes down solidly on the side of airplanes.

Jules Verne.

This illustration from Master of the World shows Verne's conception of an airplane.
Alphonse Penaud was an enthusiastic student of Cayley who furthered his scientific work. In 1871, he built a model airplane with both longitudinal and lateral stability, and his methods for achieving stability are still used today.  He also designed a remarkably modern-looking airplane with a retractable undercarriage and glass-enclosed cockpit. But perhaps his most important contribution to aviation was a popular children’s toy — the rubber band-powered airplane. Because of this plaything, a generation of young scientists and engineers grew up believing powered flight was possible.

Penaud's rubber band-powered aircraft made a flight of 181 feet (55.17 meters) before astonished French scientists at Tuileries Gardens in Paris, France, on 18 August 1871.

Alphonse Penaud.
Otto Lilienthal invented the first successful manned gliders and established the concept of the airman — a skilled pilot who controlled his aircraft and carefully balanced it while in the air. Before Lilienthal’s gliding demonstrations, it was widely assumed that an airplane would be no more difficult to steer than a boat. Lilienthal died in a flying accident, and his death set the Wright brothers in motion. Fittingly, his last words were "Sacrifices must be made."

Otto Lilienthal.

Otto Lilienthal flying in Germany in 1893. He controlled the aircraft by kicking, extending, and bending his legs to change the glider's center of gravity.
Octave Chanute collected and organized the disparate aeronautical research that was taking place at the turn of the twentieth century and became a nexus through which aviation enthusiasts shared information. In 1896, he sponsored a group of enthusiasts who experimented with several glider designs in the Indiana dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. The most successful design, a biplane glider with trussed wings, was the model for the Wrights' first gliders. Chanute also served as a sounding board for several engineers and inventors, among them, the Wright brothers.

Chanute's 1896 glider, ready for take-off at the Indiana dunes. Augustus Herring, Chanute's co-designer, was the pilot.

Octave Chanute.

Back to the top

Home    History Wing    Adventure Wing    Exhibits & Programs    Company Store    Information Desk

"Aviation is proof that – given the will – we can do the impossible."
 Eddie Rickenbacker



A History of the Airplane/The Century Before

A Chronology of Aviation History
Copyright © 1999-2010