A Complete History Of The Airplane

A Complete History Of The Airplane

Introduction

Men checking the maintenance of the Airplane

Aviation has been with us for well over one hundred years, during which the industry has helped us discover new scientific phenomena, win world wars, and allowed us to travel the globe with ease. Today we’ve gone over this long history so you can understand how airplanes have developed over the last century. This history guide covers the following:

  • When Was The First Airplane Invented?
  • What Were Airplanes First Used For?
  • The Evolution Of The Airplane
  • Future Aircraft

By reading these four detailed sections, you’ll be able to track the progress of airplanes through history and identify how plane models have changed over the years and the technology that enabled those changes. As you may expect, there’s a lot of history and science to condense for this guide, so we’ve linked away to supporting materials where you can read deeper into some of the topics we have covered.

Let’s get started at the very beginning, with the first airplane that was ever invented.

When Was The First Airplane Invented?

A pilot on a airplane dragging a banner that says "December 17 1903"

The idea of human flight has existed for thousands of years. Before we get to the first airplane, we should briefly cover the pre-airplane attempts at flight. That could be a whole new guide, so we’ll sum it up with a few points:

  • One of the most enduring Greek myths is the flight of Icarus, where the craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus use wax wings to achieve flight. Icarus flies too close to the sun (yes, that’s where we got that saying) and the wings melt, so he falls into the sea.
  • Similarly, the Persian myth of Shah Kay Kāvus details his use of a flying throne, which was carried by eagles, to visit China.
  • Archytas, a Greek scholar and a friend of Plato, is reputed to have designed a mechanical bird-shaped device that was probably steam-powered.
  • Much like Icarus in the myth, Abbas ibn Firnas is reputed to have tied wings to his back and achieved flight experimentations in the 9th Century A.D.
  • In the 1100s, English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury then worked on a winged glider that could be used to fly. This prototype hang glider apparently sailed 600 feet until Eilmer was injured, though this is doubtful and it’s much more likely he glided downwards in relative safety.
  • Leonardo da Vinci had a similar hang glider design amongst his many schematics of vehicles and contraptions that he never managed to invent.
  • Lastly, the Passarola was invented by Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a landmark invention in the development of hot-air flight technology. From there lighter than air flights occurred through the invention of hot-air balloons and dirigibles in 1783 and 1784. These designs then later formed the hard-shelled airships created by the Zeppelin company, an iconic sight in the skies of World War One Europe.

Okay! With those seven anecdotes from history, we now have an idea of how flight technology has developed over time. For as long as there have been people looking up at the sky, there have been people who have tried to tame it.

So, when was the first airplane invented? The first successful airplane flight was achieved on December 17th, 1903, by the Wright brothers. We have more details on that story below but first, there is a question of when the ideas of airplanes were invented. It is generally accepted that Sir George Cayley figured out the early schematics for what we’d call an airplane in 1799. His larger claim to fame was in 1804, with the first successful glider flight.

Later, in 1890, the first recorded powered flight was achieved by Clément Ader. He piloted a steam-powered aircraft called Ader Éole, or Avion, which is remembered for its bat-like wings. Subsequent attempts at flight are mired in doubt and the secrecy of the French government at the time.

Then the Wright brothers came along.

How Was The First Plane Invented

The first functional plane was invented by Orville and Wilbur Wright. While many attempts had come before and even had some success, it was the Wright brothers’ invention that achieved propeller-driven and powered flight that was both sustained and controllable. How long was this impressive flight? About twelve seconds, but that was groundbreaking at the time! It broached 120 feet over those 12 seconds too, so it was a great proof of concept for the Wright brothers’ ambitions of flight.

This all happened near Kitty Hawk, a small town in North Carolina surrounded by plenty of fields and low-lying hills, which were perfect for crashing planes in relative safety. The Wright brothers chose the location after consulting the U.S. Weather Bureau on ideal places to conduct gliding tests. You can see some of this correspondence here. They also researched the long history of gliders and other human attempts at flight, including some of the cases briefly mentioned above.

It also wasn’t their first attempt. They tried in 1900, where they failed. Then they tried in 1901 with an updated design, where they failed yet again but not as much as last time. This kind of persistence and iterative development is what typically drives major innovations, and the Wright brothers were certainly no exception. Over two hundred wing types were tried along with many frames and designs.

The 1903 flight was a success on December 17th. In front of five witnesses, they completed the test three times over. The last of those flights, piloted by Wilbur, was a resounding success that covered 852 feet in just one minute. This was an astounding feat for the time.

Who Invented The First Airplane

So, who were Orville and Wilbur Wright? Wilbur was the elder of the two, though they were both fascinated by many of the exciting and theoretical mechanical developments that were occurring in the late 1800s. Inspired by German engineer Otto Lilienthal, their fascination with aviation started somewhere in the 1890s. The Wright brothers continued to adjust and tweak their aircraft designs.

The patent war surrounding the Wrights and their aviation inventions almost destroyed the U.S. aviation scene before it had even begun. The Wrights were litigious with their patent filing and slapped many other inventors with lawsuits that held the industry back until a certain young navy secretary called Franklin Delano Roosevelt negotiated a solution.

Wilbur Wright succumbed to a bout of typhoid fever in 1912 at 45, a young age to die even back then. He died before his father, who eulogized Wilbur with this passage: "A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance, and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died."

Orville survived to see the end of both World Wars, dying of a heart attack in 1948 at 76 years of age. He lived long enough to witness how his and his brother’s work contributed to the break-neck pace of transport innovations. When he was born, horse-drawn carriages were the primary means of travel in America, and then he died in an age where motor vehicles had become mainstream and humanity was flirting with supersonic flight.

What Were Airplanes First Used For?

Two Airforce pilot on an aircraft base with two airplanes behind them

If you know what came after 1903, then you can probably guess what the first planes were used for. While many inventors like the Wrights toyed with aircraft and honed the principles involved with heavier-than-air flight, it was World War One that served as the perfect testing ground to show what these machines were capable of.

Powered aircraft were used a few years before the Great War. Before that war exploded, the Italians were wrapped up with the Italo-Turkish war. It was a relatively short affair that saw Italy challenge the Ottoman empire for control of Libya, particularly the coastal region Tripolitania. During an engagement near Tripoli, the Italians made the first recorded airplane reconnaissance missions in 1911. Not long after, the first aerial bombing would take place.

For the wider world, however, it would be World War One that solidified the plane’s usefulness in wartime. During the war, airplanes took part in several mission types, mainly:

  1. Reconnaissance – Using air superiority to identify targets and threats for ground forces.
  2. Surprise Attacks – Using the limited visibility of WW1-era aircraft to ambush enemy air combatants, often by approaching the rear or hiding in direct sunlight.
  3. Air-To-Air Dogfights – Strategic engagements where several planes clash, often over important targets or civilian populations where air superiority must be established.
  4. Air Superiority – This is where you control the skies, a passive requirement for launching effective attacks from airplanes.
  5. Ground Attacks – Using airplanes to attack ground units and positions, typically through machinegun strafing and bomb dropping.

By the end of the war, it was clear that ground attacks had been some of the most devastating uses of airplanes in war. Many infantry battalions and other ground forces would only travel at night, or through other obscuring conditions, to avoid the possibility of an airstrike.

Another use was dreamt up around this time but never fully utilized – the mass strategic bombing of distant enemy territories by aircraft to harry the enemy, interfering with their production in urban centers. If you’re more of a World War Two buff, then you already know that this was explored later, particularly by Germany’s blitzkrieg campaigns and the Allied responses by bombing Dresden, Hamburg, and Berlin, among other key locations. The Japanese also took surprise air attacks to a whole new and terrifying level with their kamikaze attacks.

Needless to say, World War One was instrumental in the continued development of aviation technology. Many more technological and strategic advancements were made in the interceding years, too, and then flexed during World War Two by some of the world’s most efficient war machines.

The Evolution Of The Airplane

picture shows different types of airplanes

Now that we have some idea of how airplanes have developed, let’s track their evolution throughout the 20th Century and beyond.

The First Airplane

That first airplane that the Wright brothers invented was quite rudimentary. Even its name was simple and humble by our standards nowadays – they just called it the Flyer though it’s often referred to as the Wright Flyer, too.

It had a large wing area of 500 square feet that supported approximately 625 pounds. 200 pounds of this was the propulsion system alone, two large 8-foot propellers tipped with fabric and varnish to stop them from splitting. To budge this, they needed an 8-horsepower engine. The engine was crude, consisting of 4 horizontal cylinders made from cast iron and fitted into an aluminum crankcase. There was no fuel pump, spark plugs, throttle, or carburetor. As for the frame, it was a canard biplane frame just like their late 1800s kite/glider designs.

Developing Commercial Possibilities

As aircraft technology developed, it became clear that there were civilian applications for planes. This is a very common phenomenon that we call swords to plowshares, where innovation with military use makes its way to the mainstream for civilian use. From super glue and duct tape to the Internet and the computers you use to access it, they all came from military tech.

The first commercial flights took place just before World War One, which understandably overshadowed such a landmark event. A scheduled flight took off on the 1st of January 1914, to ferry passengers between St. Petersburg in Russia and Tampa, Florida.

As the tech developed after the Great War, we also saw the rise of individual aviators. Charles Lindbergh had completed his award-winning flight in 1927, traveling from New York City to Paris to make the first solo transatlantic flight of its kind. In his wake, more notable aviators like Amelia Earhart drew widespread media attention for breaking many firsts, particularly as a rare female pilot.

The commercial airliner scene would then be changed forever by the release of the Douglas DC-3. It was one of the fastest, widest-ranging, and most reliable aircraft in the skies before World War Two broke out, as evidenced by its widespread commercial success. While post-WW2 innovations knocked it off the top spot, it’s still regarded as one of the biggest aviation milestones.

After the war, the civilian aircraft industry had grown to such a point that we saw airplanes bought by individuals for private use. One of the most popular of these is the Cessna 172, whose design is still instantly recognizable to many people today.

As the commercial market grew through the 1920s and into the 1950s, there was a demand for bigger, more powerful aircraft. Fortunately, the militaries of the world had been working on yet another aviation technology that would take the world by storm…

The Jets

Like many aviation innovations, the idea of a jet engine wasn’t particularly new. Through theoretical designs, jet propulsion had been posited as far back as when steam power ruled the world. The first practical attempts at making jet engines were formed just before World War Two. Frank Whittle of the RAF had submitted turbojet plans but research continued at a slow pace. In Germany, similar work was done by Hans von Ohain and would come to fruition in 1935 via the Heinkel He 178. This was the world’s first plane to fly using just turbojet systems.

Then the war happened. Germany used their leading position in jet engine development to create the Messerschmitt Me 262 in 1944. This was the world’s first fighter jet, and they came to be known as Schwalbe or Sturmvogel depending on the arsenal they were carrying. In the same year, the Arado Ar 234 was also created by the Germans as the first-ever jet-powered bomber and was called the Blitz.

Frank Whittle’s efforts paid off within months of the Messerschmitt and the Arado, with Britain introducing the Gloster Meteor to the war. It was the only Allied jet airplane to see combat operations during World War Two. The U.S. and Japan also fielded their own jet planes as the war drew to a close. America introduced the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star while Japan fielded the Nakajima J9Y Kikka.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that it was Germany who pioneered a lot of jet engine technology. Their work with literal rocket science was highly sought after, as evidenced by Operation Paperclip. Both U.S. and Soviet interests intensely studied the Germans’ progress with jet propulsion, seeking to arm themselves for the Cold War that was brewing.

The USSR had developed the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, establishing an infamous swept-wings design that was capable of going transonic. They armed North Korea with these during the Korean War while the MiG-17s, an upgraded model, would see action in the Vietnam War. The nimble MiG became an icon of Soviet ingenuity in the context of the Cold War, weaving through the skies of Eastern Bloc airspaces and outmaneuvering many American aircraft with ease.

After the 1950s, jet engine technology became universal in many aircraft, especially those meant for war. The commercial airline industry seized on jet propulsion technology to achieve faster flight times, making distant destinations more convenient for frequent flyers.

Larger Aircrafts

Since the invention of heavier-than-air aviation technology, the size of aircraft has steadily increased to figure out how large planes could get. Here’s a roll call of the largest aircraft that were created during aviation history:

  • Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI – A 22-meter long German bomber that spans 42 meters. It was the largest bomber used in regular service for World War One.
  • Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress – A 22-meter long American bomber primarily used on the European front in World War Two, with a span of 31 meters.
  • Boeing B-29 Superfortress – Concurrently, the B-29 Superfortress was another of the largest WW2 aircraft at 30 meters long and a 43-meter wingspan.
  • Douglas XB-19 – The largest bomber built by the Americans until 1946, measuring in with a 40-meter length and a 64-meter wingspan.
  • Boeing B-52 Stratofortress – Beginning in 1946 and taking to the skies in the 50s, the Stratofortress bomber upped the ante yet again with a 48 meters long fuselage and a 56-meter long wingspan.
  • Boeing 747 – As open hostilities between countries started to die down, Boeing turned their attention to the 747. It is 70 meters long and its wingspan measures 59 meters, and it is capable of carrying between 366 and 525 for its improved versions. 1,087 passengers were lifted aboard a 747 line during Operation Solomon. First flying in 1969, this would remain the largest and most capable airline craft until 2001, a reign of 32 years. There are still 747s in the sky today, though they are becoming discontinued in 2022 after a 50-year run.
  • Airbus A340-600 – Designed to dethrone the 747, the A340-600 was larger at 75 meters long and a 63-meter wingspan. It was only released in 2001 and many are still in service.
  • Airbus A380 – Airbus’ next attempt to take on Boeing was more successful with the A380 in 2005, which shortened its length to 72 meters and extended its wingspan to 79 meters. It can carry anywhere from 525 and 853 passengers.
  • Boeing 747-8 – An updated form of the 747 released in 2010 and the largest 747 variants. While the original 747 was 70 meters long, the 747-8 is 76 meters long. Similarly, the wingspan was upgraded from 59 meters to 68 meters, nearly a ten-meter difference.
  • Boeing 777X-9 – The latest Boeing line was released in 2020 with the 777Xs, the largest of which is the 777X-9. They are slated for a 2023 launch and have a seating of 426 passengers, though this is expected to increase throughout its lifespan. As for the dimensions of these new planes, they’re 76 meters long with a 71-meter wingspan.

The Supersonic Aircraft

While many jet engines were capable of going transonic, aviation technology after WW2 managed to go even further and break the sound barrier. Going supersonic was the new hill that needed to be climbed. Using a rocket thruster that exerted 6,000 pounds of force, it was the Bell X-1 experimental plane that first broke the sound barrier on behalf of the Americans in 1947. The first production plane to achieve this was the F-86 Canadair Sabre.

In 1961, the Douglas DC-8-43 managed to exceed Mach 1 during a controlled dive. This was surprising, given that this was an airliner that hadn’t been built with sound-breaking speed in mind. The DC-8-43 broke the sound barrier before purposely supersonic aircraft like the Concorde (1969) and the Tu-144 (1968) were created.

While the Tu-144 was plagued with reliability issues, it was used to train the Soviet space program before being retired in 1999. The story of the Concorde is much more infamous, having been discontinued after a serious public crash on July 25th, 2000. Air France Flight 4590 punctured its fuel tank on take-off and fell into a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport, resulting in 113 dead.

Improvements

By now we’ve covered the major developments of aircraft, starting from the 1900s and ending in 2020. Throughout those 120 years, the designs used for airplanes have changed drastically. The best way to sum up these changes to the efficiency, controllability, and comfort of flying aircraft is to highlight eight of the biggest aviation innovations.

  1. The Propeller – Ever since Leonardo da Vinci’s aerial screw and similar ancient Chinese designs, theoretical early flying machines always had propellers on them. We don’t use them so much today but the development of working propellers for aeronautics was vital for the invention of both helicopters and early airplanes.
  1. The Landing Gear – The Curtiss Model E first used retractable landing gear in 1911, though the 30s saw more advancements in landing efficiency. It was only after the rise of airliner planes that the need for top-of-the-line landing gears exploded. You can’t land hundreds of tons of steel without some kind of cushioning, after all.
  1. The Airfoil – Similarly to the propeller, the airfoil was vital to early aircraft development. The Wright brothers researched extensively into the camber of their Flyer’s wing. The idea is that you can improve the maneuverability of an airplane by tweaking its aerodynamic profile to generate upwards force.
  1. Autopilot – We’ve had autopilot for much longer than you may think – 1912. By automating movements in the rudder and elevator, connecting them to gyroscopes and altimeters so they don’t lose their way, autopilot tech takes a lot of stress off the pilots’ shoulders and makes flight a breeze. Since the 1910s, electronic equivalents are in place for modern-day aircraft that are much more sophisticated.
  1. Aluminum Alloys – Both pure and alloyed aluminum quickly replaced the wood and cloth used for Wright’s first Flyer. By the 1930s, this lightweight metal added much-needed speed and maneuverability to developing aircraft.
  1. Jet Fuel – We’ve already covered the jet engine above but we wouldn’t have those engines if we didn’t have something to put in it. That’s where jet fuel comes in. Many different materials were tried, mainly gasoline, diesel, hydrogen, and kerosene. Kerosene was the most powerful and opened the door for more powerful engines.
  1. Fly-By-Wire (FBW) – Fly-by-wire was where we transitioned from manual to electronic interfaces to control airplanes. Like so many advancements, these started in the 30s and 40s but the first fly-by-wire plane without mechanical backup was an F-8 Crusader in 1972.
  1. In-Flight Entertainment – While it’s secondary to the design of the plane, it should be noted that nowadays most of us who fly do so as passengers. That’s why the revelation of in-flight entertainment was important in getting the airline industry off the ground. It staved boredom away, keeping people busy so that manufacturers can work on shortening travel times. With this entertainment also came Internet and satellite connection technology.

Future Aircraft

Future Airplanes looking like rocketship or spaceship

The future of aviation is bright but unknown. We’ve already mentioned the incoming Boeing 777X line in 2023, the immediate future, but on a larger scale, there are leaps in technology that we’ve yet to make. Sustainability is also going to be an issue going into the future. Burning kerosene has a provable effect on the environment and so, with world governments turning their attention to green energy, sustainable alternatives may have to be found.

In 2017, Neva Aerospace showcased the AirQuadOne, a theoretical personal aircraft that looks more like the flying cars that every sci-fi movie promised us. There are a lot of logistical concerns that come with handing everybody a mini aircraft to get around but some areas could doubtlessly make use of such technology.

Another example of possible future technology is something that has long been the center of conspiracy theories – anti-gravity. We know that the U.S. tried to beat gravity in the 50s with their hovercraft experimentations, from which they proved VTOL capability with the VZ-9 Avrocar. Since then, the U.S. Army has acquired many strange patents detailing anti-gravity aircraft.

If you didn’t know, anti-gravity aircraft are part of a conspiracy theory that explains away UFO sightings as being something much closer to home. Sightings are backed by the UK’s Ministry of Defense and, more recently, the U.S. Navy. One of the most popular of these theories details a hypothetical aircraft called the TR-3B or the “Black Triangle.” Whether this technology currently exists or not, it makes sense that we’d try and beat gravity to achieve higher speeds and unlimited maneuverability in the air.

Then there is also the brewing corporate space race, where figures like Elon Musk want to land on Mars. It’s no coincidence that a lot of jet innovation happened during the 60s space race and we could see an aviation technology renaissance once again.

Summary

Airport with Airplanes being drag to their station

Now we’ve reached the end of this guide on the history of airplanes. We’ve covered a lot today, so feel free to tackle this guide in several visits if that makes the information easier to digest. If this is a topic that interests you, we’d recommend looking at the linked materials to gain an even better understanding of how airplanes have developed in the last 120 years. With how much airplanes have developed in the last century, there’s no telling where we will be in another 100 years’ time. 

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