100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Year of Invention: 1903

What Is It? A heavier-than-air, motor-driven flying machine.

Who Invented It? Wilbur and Orville Wright (in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina)

Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Airplanes have changed human life, altered our perceptions, and collapsed our concept of distance. Places that were separated by months of ocean sailing are now no more distant than a few hours’ flight. The airplane helped create the expectation of instant worldwide news and interchange. It has made the world a single global community and a single global economy. Airplanes opened the door to the space age.

History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Early myths often involved flight. Greek, Roman, Norse, and Asian gods could fly. Flight was a part of what made them gods. Leonardo da Vinci was the first human to take the next step. Between 1505 and 1510, he designed a series of flying machines. He built several small-scale models.

The first person to intentionally lift off the ground did so in a hot air balloon in France in 1783. In 1843, Englishman William Herson applied for, and received, a patent for a steam-powered, winged aeroplane. But his plane never flew.

The late 1800s saw a host of men building a series of fixed-wing gliders. Prussian Otto Lilienthal was the leader in glider research and experimentation. His work between 1891 and his death during a glider crash in 1896 defined the wing design that the Wright brothers would use in their gliders and motorized planes.

How Was the Airplane Invented?

Successful flight required three things: lift, power, and control. Otto Lilienthal made over 2,500 glider flights and discovered the principles of lift and wing design. Engines (mostly steam) existed to create power. Control was the missing ingredient—as proven by the large number of crashes and deaths of flying enthusiasts.


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