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Jaco Home >> Articles >> History of Aviation: Aircrafts Through Time

History of Aviation: Aircrafts Through Time

Mankind has extended efforts in perusing the skies with man-made flying objects for over 2,000 years. The history of aviation began with the invention of kites and gliders, before emerging to the multimillion dollar aircraft industry of modern era. The origin of the first man-made flying objects were kites circa 200 B.C. in China. Leonardo da Vinci expressed his dream of flight in several of his paintings circa the 15th century; however, his dream never manifested into a constructed flying vessel.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the discovery of hydrogen led to the first development of the hydrogen balloon, which carried people away at high altitudes and across several miles. In the 19th century, tethered balloons were used to transport people and observe battles safely above ground as they took place. Other scientific discoveries developed a variety of theories in mechanics that became the backbone of Isaac Newton's laws of motion and fluid dynamics, which eventually led to the development of modern aerodynamics. In the early 20th century, gliders became the groundwork for massive aircraft, engine technology, and further developments in aerodynamics.

The Earliest Attempts

In 400 B.C., a Grecian scholar by the name of Archytas, designed and constructed a steam-powered aircraft modeled after the shape of a bird. According to scholars of that time, “The Pigeon” was reputed to have flown approximately two hundred meters on a suspended string. The first attempt at moving objects through the air was in the form of kites around 200 B.C. in China. In fact, a Chinese military officer flew a kite over enemy lines in a mission to determine the length of tunnel it would take to storm an attack. During this invasion, a Chinese prince attached himself to the same kite in order to save himself. The invention of the Kongming latern, an oil lamp glowing under a large paper bag that floated in the midnight sky, helped General Zhuge Liang defeat his enemies by scaring them into thinking he was helped by a divine force.

Hot air balloons were known in China since about the 3rd century B.C. In the 5th century B.C.E., Lu Ban invented a large kite made from wood. In the 1st century A.D., Xiong Nu bound himself with a bird feather and glided about one hundred meters before finally landing. Yuan Huangtou was the first manned kite glide to depart from a tower. The oil lamps became popular during popular festivities, and may have filtered into the Middle East through the Silk Road.

Eilmel Malmesbury, an English monk, successfully flew a glider for about two hundred meters before sustaining injuries. Leonardo da Vinci expressed his dream of flight in several of his paintings circa the 15th century; however, his dream never manifested into a constructed flying vessel.

In 1647, Tito Livio Burattini built a model aircraft with four pairs of fixed glider wings. It was reported that the four-winged aircraft lifted a cat in 1648; however, it never supported the weight of a human passenger.

In 1670, Francesco Terzi released a published work that contained a theory that supported the possibility of lighter-than-air flying vessels using copper foil cylinders with a vacuum. While his theory was not entirely wrong, he forgot to figure that the surrounding atmosphere would crush the spheres.

Modern Flight

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the discovery of hydrogen led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon, which carried people away at high altitudes and across several miles. In 1783, five inventors achieved several innovative designs in the history of aviation.

  • June 4th, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers displayed their hot air balloon, a design that did not support a human passenger.
  • August 27th, 1783, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers deployed the first hydrogen balloon, a design that did not support a human passenger.
  • October 19th, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers deployed the first manned flight using a tethered balloon with several humans aboard.
  • November 21st, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers deployed the first unrestrained flight with passengers. All three passengers drifted in the hot air balloon for about five miles powered by wood fire.
  • December 1st, 1783, Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert deployed their first manned hydrogen balloon in front of a crowd numbering four hundred thousand. Both ascended to altitude of 1,800 feet, and finally landed after a flight lasting approximately two hours and five minutes.

The hot air balloon became extremely popular during the late Eighteenth century, which furthered the discovery of the correlation between altitude and atmosphere. Inventors attempted to create a hot air balloon that could be easily steered.

Scholars cite Henri Giffard as the first to fly a lighter-than-air steam-engine craft in 1852. Giffard flew for a total of 15 miles in France. In the United States, non-steerable hot air balloons were used during the American Civil War by the Union.

  • In 1863, Ferdinand von Zepplin was the first passenger to fly with the Union Army of Potomac.
  • In 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs powered the first Army electric-powered ship in free-flight.

Despite these advancements, lighter-than-air craft were temporarily short-lived and not very durable. Regular controlled flights of modern era did not emerge until the introduction of the internal combustion engine during the Industrial Revolution.

Even though airships were used during the First and Second World War, heavier-than-air craft greatly overshadowed their existence. The first aircraft to make route controlled flights were blimps. Alberto Santos-Dumont was the first pilot to successfully fly a non-rigid airship equipped with an internal combustion engine.

In 1901, Santos-Dumont flew his airship called the “Number 6” over Paris and around the Eiffel Tower in under thirty minutes. He became a successful designer and builder of several kinds of aircraft. Rigid body dirigible aircraft were also becoming advanced during this time. Ferdinand von Zeppelin was the pioneer of dirigible design. In 1899, he began working on the first Zeppelin airship. Zepplin's prototype airship, also known as the Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ 1), was equipped with two Daimler engines.

  • In 1900, the first Zeppelin launched and lasted for only eighteen minutes before begin forced to land on a lake due to mechanical problems.
  • In 1902, Leonardo Torres Quevedo built his own version of the Zeppelin and modified the balancing problems.
  • History of Airplanes: A ThinkQuest article that covers the history of the airplane.
  • How Did We Learn to Fly Like the Birds?: NAASA teaches kids how humans learned to fly like birds.
  • The Wright Brothers' 1900 Kite and Glider Experiments: The United States Centennial Flight Commission provides historical documentation the earliest 1900 kite and glider experiments.
  • Timeline of Flight: The Library of Congress covers the extensive timeline of flight beginning with 1,000 B.C.E. to 2000.
  • Aviation: From Sand Dunes to Sonic Booms: The National Park Service provides an extensive list of essays that describe the development of aviation.
  • Mysterious Flight (PDF): A thematic unit that describes the development of flight through human history.
  • Before the First Flight (PDF): A teacher's module that helps guides students to understanding the roots of the modern-day aviation.
  • Early History of Aviation (PDF): An outline that covers the early history of aviation, including the natural philosophers, experimentalists and theorists, visionaries, and the pioneers to made it all come together.
  • Historical Aircraft of the Navy: The United States Navy shares a modest list of historical attack, fighter, patrol, helicopters, torpedo bombers, general purpose, transportation, dive bombing, observation, and anti-submarine aircraft.
  • A Short History of Aircraft Survivability (PDF): An abstract paper that describes the endurance of aircraft before it finally hits the can.

Heavier-than-air Aircraft

Samuel Pierpont Langley became one of the first pioneers to seriously probe into the field of aerodynamics. In 1869, Langley built the Aerodrome No. 5, an unmanned heavier-than-air craft, and successfully launched it on a sustained flight. After successfully launching the Aerodrome No. 5 and No. 6, Langley began searching for funding to build a manned version of the Aerodrome, which was granted by the United States government after the turn of the Spanish-American War. It was funded for the sole purpose of spying on the enemy. Unfortunately, Langley's design was too frail to hold itself together.

The Wright Brothers designed and tested numerous kite and glider models between 1900 to 1902. Deeply disappointed in these designs, the Wrights built a wind tunnel and then created numerous devices that were used to measure the lift and drag on over two hundred wing designs. The Wrights finally found satisfaction with their third glider as it outperformed its predecessors and rigorous testing contributed to the field of aeronautical engineering. The Wrights were the first to seriously study the existing power and control problems. They discovered the solution to the control problem by developing wing warping for roll control, yaw control, and a steerable rudder. The Wrights made the first sustained, manned heavier-than-air flight on December 17th 1903. According to historians, the Wrights seemed to have the most advanced knowledge on heavier-than-air navigation during their time.

In 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont announced his first takeoff with his machine entitled, “14-bis,” in Paris. He set the world record by flying two hundred and twenty meters in twenty one and a half seconds. Santos-Dumont was responsible for adding movable surfaces to the wings in order to gain lateral stability. Santos-Dumont made the Demoiselle monoplane, which was employed as Santos-Dumont's personal transportation. In 1908, he began working with the Clement-Bayard company to build the Demoiselle No. 19; the world's first mass produced aircraft.

  • In 1877, Enrico Forlanini developed the first steam-powered, unmanned helicopter. It lifted thirteen meters off the ground, and remained there for twenty seconds.
  • In 1907, Paul Cornu developed the first manned helicopter that rose off the ground.


The military started using airplanes as soon as they were invented. Italy was the first country to use airplanes for military purposes. They used planes to bomb and shell during the Turkish-Italian War in Libya; however, the first planes were used for offensive and a defensive purpose was during the First World War.

  • In 1914, Roland Garros affixed a machine gun to the tip of his plane, effectively making him the first “ace.”
  • In 1915, Kurt Wintgens won his first aerial victory with a fighter plane equipped with a built-in machine gun.

During the Second World War, all countries advanced their development and production of aircraft and flight-based weapons systems. Military's from the around the world used strategic bombers, dive bombers, fighter bombers, and ground attack aircraft. The advent of the radar gave more room for coordinated and controlled deployment. In 1942, the world's first jet-powered bomber launched entitled, the “Arado Ar 234.” Helicopters also saw rapid development during World War II.

In the commercial aviation sector, the Concorde passenger jet plane retired during the early 21st century. It was fuel hungry and could only carry a limited amount of passengers; however, it made room for emerging airlines, such as British Airways. Commercial airliners may become a thing of the past, because of full-scale attempts by military aviation to focus on the elimination of piloted planes. The introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may make this a possibility in the future. In 2003, the first autonomous flight across the Atlantic Ocean was successfully completed by a computer-controlled model aircraft. This could contribute greatly to the national defense against terrorist attacks, where the country became vulnerable to hijacked aircraft. In addition, it will contribute greatly to unmanned surveillance over city borders.

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