By William “Doc” Halliday

Have you ever flown in an airplane?  Since at least the legend of Icarus in Greek Mythology, mankind’s dream of flying has been recorded.  This is the legend of a father and son using wings made of wax and feathers to escape Crete.  The father, Daedalus, warns the son not to fly too high or the heat of the sun will melt the wax.  Icarus ignored his father’s instructions, and did fly too close to the sun.  The heat melted the wax causing him to fall into the sea and drown. 

But even prior to this legend, some men (and women) would look at the birds flying and wonder if they could fly also.  In about 1,000 B.C. kites were invented by the Chinese.  In 852 B.C. English King Bladud attempted to fly.  Legend says he used necromancy to build a pair of wings that attached to his arms. Bladud made an attempt to fly at the temple of Apollo while wearing the wings, but the mythical figure unfortunately didn’t get the right blueprints from the spirits; he fell to his death. 

In 400 B.C. Archytas of Tarentum is alleged to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown about 650 feet.   This machine, which its inventor called “the pigeon”, may have been suspended on a wire or pivot for its flight.  It was described in the writings of Aulus Gellius five centuries after Archytas lived. 

In 1250 A.D. Roger Bacon, an English cleric, proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages in his writings.  In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines and a parachute. 

In 1670, Francesco de Lana Terzi published a design for a lighter-than-air ship.  In 1680, Giovanni Borelli an Italian mathematician concluded that human muscle was inadequate for flight.  Then, in 1709, Bartolomeu Laurenço de Gusmao designed a model glider. 

In 1783, Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free aerial flight in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon.  That same year, Jacques Alexandre César Charles and M.N. Robert flew in a hydrogen balloon.  Two years later Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries crossed the English Channel by balloon.  Jean François de Rozier and Pierre Romain became the first documented fatalities of flying that same year, 1785. 

In 1797 André Jacques Garnerin made the first human parachute descent, from a balloon.  George Cayley published a classic treatise on aviation in 1809.  William Henson’s design for an aerial steam carriage was published in 1843.  That same year, George Cayley published a design for a biplane. 

Baptiste Henri Jacques Giffard invented the Giffard dirigible. It was an airship powered with a steam engine, and weighed over 400 pounds.  It was the world’s first passenger-carrying airship (then known as a dirigible). Both practical and steerable, the hydrogen-filled airship was equipped with a 3 horsepower steam engine that drove a propeller. The engine was fitted with a funnel pointing down. The exhaust steam was mixed in with the combustion gases and it was hoped by these means to stop sparks rising up to the gas bag; he also installed a rudder vertically.

On September 24, 1852 Giffard made the first powered and controlled flight travelling 16 miles from Paris to Trappes.  The wind was too strong to allow him to make headway against it, so he was unable to return to where he had started. However, he was able to make turns and circles proving that a powered airship could be steered and controlled.  In 1867 Wilbur Wright was born near Millville, Indiana. 

In 1870 Alphonse Pénaud experimented with twisted rubber to power a model helicopter.  Orville Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1871. In late 1885 Wilbur was accidently struck in the face with a hockey stick.  He became inhibited after the loss of his front teeth, and subsequently failed to attend college (Yale). In 1886 Orville started a printing business while he was still in high school. In 1889 Otto Lilienthal publishes Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst and two years later he began successful gliding experiments.  In 1895 he flew biplane gliders.  He died the next year in a glider accident. 

Also in 1896 Octave Chanute began biplane gliding experiments in Michigan and Samuel P. Langley produced successful steam-powered models that flew.  Orville dropped out of high school to publish a newspaper, the “West Side News,” and Wilbur joined him as editor. The newspaper business was not profitable and the Wrights returned to contract printing, in 1889.  In 1893 the Wright brothers began to sell and repair bicycles. The Wrights manufactured their own bicycles, the “St. Clair” and the “Van Cleve.” The bicycle business turned profitable beginning in 1895.  Wilbur developed an aerodynamic control system for aircraft and built a kite to test it in 1899.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazilian aviator, circled the Eiffel Tower in an airship in 1901.  Beginning in 1900 and continuing through 1902, the Wright brothers flew gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, refining their control system. At their home in Dayton, Ohio, they built a wind tunnel and conducted research on wing shapes. In 1903 Samuel Langley’s full-sized, manned “Aerodrome A” crashed on take-off. 

Today, December 17th, is the 111th anniversary of the Wright brothers first controlled, sustained powered flights made at Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The weather was freezing with a headwind gusting to 27 MPH.  With the four flights made by the Wright brothers on that day in 1903, the era of powered flight took off. 

Doc Halliday is an author, columnist and consultant who resides in Marshall, Texas.  He may be contacted by mail at:  P. O. Box 1551, Marshall, TX 75671; or by email at:

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