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Pioneers of Aviation

Early Flight Attempts

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon, the famous English Friar and alchemist, put forth an idea for an ornithopter in about 1250 AD. Ornithopters flap their wings like a bird to achieve flight. The ornithopter was never successful until very recently. Bacon also visualized the balloon and theorized that one could be given lift with either ether or phlogiston.

Ether was believed to be an element in early chemistry, or alchemy, that filled the upper regions of space. It was not until the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 that ether was shown to not exist. Phlogiston was another alchemical element and was thought to be the material substance of fire.

Roger Bacon had many difficulties in his life due to his work in science and technology and was thought to be a wizard or crackpot, or both. In fact, he was locked up in a Paris monastery for several years due to his unconventional views. His contemporaries thought that his work surely involved magic and some of it may have actually been magic. There was a link between alchemy and occult practices. Nevertheless Roger Bacon made many discoveries and recorded a lot of information that was not appreciated until long after his death.

Casting an eye toward the future Bacon wrote:
"Ships will go without rowers and with only a single man to guide them. Carriages without horses will travel with incredible speed. Machines for flying can be made in which a man sits, and skillfully devised wings strike the air in the manner of a bird. Machines will raise infinitely great weights, and ingenious bridges will span rivers without supports."

Bacon was not exonerated from being a crackpot until the twentieth century - more than 600 years after his death. There is a manuscript in code that he may have written that has never been deciphered although it was attempted by World War II code breakers.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, known as the great renaissance artist and architect, was a military engineer during a large part of his working career and a substantial percentage of his architectural work involved fortifications. Leonardo invented many items, most of them with military applications. Renaissance Italy was in a perpetual state of war and much of the product of the society was military in nature. Leonardo was not a warmonger by any means and looked upon it as “beastly madness.”

Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of a glider conceptLeonardo produced several designs for flying machines including a glider and two helicopter-type designs. There is no evidence that Leonardo da Vinci ever tried to develop his flying machine concepts into working devices.

Industrial Flight

During the 1800s, human flight began to seem attainable with new technology that industrialization brought. By the end of the century, many people were competing to create the first working flying machine. The idea of human flight in heavier-than-air machines had changed from being a dream to a realistic possibility. It was no longer a question of if man could fly, but when would man fly.

Sir George Cayley

Sir George Cayley of England studied the idea of flight in a heavier-than-air device around 1810. Cayley is known as the father of aviation in Britain. He built gliders to study flight and put forth the basic idea of the airplane as well as proposing an aerial carriage in 1843. Cayley’s aerial carriage combined the principles of an airplane and a helicopter, but Cayley never attempted to build such a device.

Aerial Transit Company

British optimists and aviation pioneers William S. Henson and John Stringfellow founded the Aerial Transit Company in 1842 - purportedly a worldwide airline service. They obtained patents for their aircraft, the Aerial, an aerial steam carriage. An early model failed to fly and the partners split up shortly thereafter. Stringfellow continued to experiment with flight and in 1848 actually coaxed another steam-powered model into the air for a short distance.

Clément Ader

Clément Ader, a French engineer and inventor, may have been the first person that made a powered flight. The distinction between Ader and Stringfellow probably being that Ader’s was a manned flight. He built three aircraft patterned after bats and the first one is reported to have flown 160 feet, or 50 meters, on October 9, 1890 in the Eole, his first aircraft. The Eole was powered by a steam engine as were his later unsuccessful designs built under contract to the French Ministry of War, the Avion II and Avion III. Ader claims the title as the Father of French Aviation.

Clément Ader was a prolific inventor and produced an electric microphone and theatrephone, consequently discovering the stereo effect. In 1881, he used twelve microphones to transmit a performance of the Paris Opera to the Exhibition hall at the Pâris Exposition International d' Électricité, Palais de l'Industrie (World Exhibition of Electricity, Palace of Industry) through electric wires laid through the Paris Sewers. Listeners at the exhibition could listen to the distant opera through stereo earphones. This invention was a great sensation and eventually named the Theatrephone. The Compagnie du Theatrophone made the service commercially available to coin operated phones and subscribers from 1890-1932.

Sir Hiram Maxim

Sir Hiram Maxim, winner of the Légion d'Honneur at the Pâris Exposition International d' Électricité of 1881, is said to have been inspired at the exhibition when he talked with someone that advised him that the sure road to riches was to invent a device that would allow Europeans to kill one another in great numbers. He soon invented the machine gun as well as many other devices.

Maxim also constructed a flying machine in 1893. The machine weighed about 3 1/2-tons or 3175 kilos. To power his flying machine, Maxim developed some special lightweight steam engines that could produce between 160 and 180 horsepower, or 120 to 135 kilowatts, to power his craft - a remarkable accomplishment by itself. In 1894, Maxim’s plane lifted off its track in testing and flew about 200 feet, or 61 meters - and then crashed. Maxim continued to develop aircraft but others eclipsed his efforts in a few years.

To obtain funding for his second aircraft, Maxim built a model and held a press conference on 4 March 1904 where he stated that he saw a great future for aircraft as a military engine of war that would be of enormous value to Great Britain. He also announced plans to build captive aircraft for the Earl’s Court Exhibition and the Crystal Palace Exhibition. The flying machines were very popular at the exhibitions and they conveyed riders around at nearly 100 miles per hour or 160 kph. Maxim fitted flying controls to one of the gondolas allowing him to gather aerodynamic data.

Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal prepares to defy deathAnother pair of aviators that made substantial contributions to the field were Otto and Gustav Lilienthal. Probably the greatest contribution that the Lilienthals made was that they attempted to record scientific data about their gliders and how they worked. Otto published this information in his 1889 book entitled “Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst” (Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation). The Lilienthals worked with gliders and made more than 2000 glides from 1891 to 1896. The Lilianthals are considered to be the first aviators in history to achieve safe, repeatable glides. Nevertheless, Otto was killed in a crash that broke his back in 1896.

Samuel Pierpont Langley

Samuel Pierpont Langley hydroplaningSamuel Pierpont Langley, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution, conducted years of research into flight and had a successful experiment in 1896 when his unmanned steam-powered Aerodrome Number 5 achieved flight for more than 1½ minutes traveling more than ½ miles, or 800 meters. Langley built large airplane models that he called Aerodromes, meaning air runners, and concentrated on developing a lightweight airplane engine. War gave a big boost to Langley’s work in 1898 when the US government granted him $50,000 to develop a flying machine during the Spanish - American War. Langley’s assistant, Charles M. Manly, succeeded in creating an internal combustion gasoline engine of radial configuration that developed about 52 horsepower or 39 kilowatts, very powerful for its day. Manly was aboard the craft during two attempted manned flights near Washington D.C. Langley devised a steam catapult to launch the Aerodrome off of a houseboat floating on the Potomac River. Neither flight was successful and Manly nearly drowned in the river during the second test.

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