Before the Wright Brothers: History’s Early Flying Machines | History Hit

Before the Wright Brothers: History’s Early Flying Machines

Teet Ottin

19 May 2022
Drawing of an Aerial Steam Carriage (left) / Clément Ader's Avion III is displayed at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris (middle) / Francesco Lana de Terzi's flying boat concept c.1670 (right)
Image Credit: Everett Collection, / Clément Ader, CC BY-SA 2.0 BE <>, via Wikimedia Commons (middle) / Molynk, A., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

The Wright brothers changed the world in 1903, when they successfully took to the skies and achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight. Two years later they managed to build the first fully practical airplane. Ever since, the skies have served as bustling transportation highways for humans and goods.

Since ancient times, our ancestors dreamed about seeing the world from above. Wilbur and Orville Wright were not the first people who tried to fly. There is a long history of inventors and thinkers coming up with interesting and sometimes outright crazy ideas to follow birds into the skies.

Here we take a look at 12 of the most weird and wonderful flying machines designed throughout the ages.

1. War kites of medieval China and Japan

Kites fly on top of the Mitsui Store where the craftsmen are working on top of the roof, print by Hokusai

Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Already during the early medieval age, states were trying to use the skies for military purposes. Man-carrying kites, for example, were used in ancient China and Japan, with some of the earliest sources dating back to the 6th century CE. The main purpose of these kites was to gather information about the terrain or to locate enemy positions. In the 13th century, the European explorer Marco Polo commented on the use of treacherous man-lifting kites during his visit to Yuan dynasty China.

2. Eilmer of Malmesbury’s wings

Elmer (the Flying Monk) of Malmesbury

Image Credit: Radicalrobbo, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Eilmer of Malmesbury was an 11th-century English Benedictine monk and an avid reader of the Greek myth of Daedalus, where the protagonist invented wings so that he and his son Icarus could escape Crete. Inspired by this story, Eilmer attached wings to his hands and feet and launched himself from the top of a tower at Malmesbury Abbey. It is said that he was airborne for 15 seconds, covering around 200 meters before landing and breaking both of his legs.

3. Da Vinci’s wings

A modern model of Leonardo da Vinci’s design; Da Vinci’s original sketch (left corner).

Image Credit: Viktor Gladkov, / Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci had many ideas on how humans could take flight. This design follows a common idea of emulating bird or bat wings. There are legends that Leonardo Da Vinci tried out his invention with one of his apprentices, though the lack of concrete evidence casts doubt on these claims.

4. The Ottoman rocket

Image depicting the first ever manned rocket flight performed by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi

Image Credit: Kabz15, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Lagâri Hasan Çelebi was an Ottoman aviator who, based on traveller Evliya Çelebi’s account, made a successful manned rocket flight. The claim is that in 1633, Lagari launched a 7-winged rocket fuelled by gunpowder in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It is said that before take-off, Lagari jokingly exclaimed something along the lines of, “my Sultan, I’m going to talk to the Prophet Jesus”. He landed safely in the sea, swimming back ashore.

5. De Terzi’s flying boat

Francesco Lana de Terzi’s flying boat concept c.1670

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Molynk, A., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

The idea for this quirky looking flying machine came from Italian Jesuit priest Francesco Lana de Terzi. His design had a central mast to which a sail was attached, and four masts which had thin copper foil spheres attached to them: the air would be pumped out of the spheres, leaving a vacuum inside.

The idea was that because of the vacuum, the balloons would be lighter than the surrounding air, which would provide the aircraft with the necessary lift. In practice, de Terzi’s spheres would have collapsed under air pressure, and further developments had to wait for more practicable lifting gases.

6. Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s lighter-than-air airship

Passarola, Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s airship

Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1709, Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a Brazilian-born Portuguese priest turned aeronautical innovator, propelled a small balloon made of paper about four meters into the air, using combustion that filled the balloon with hot air. This design could be said to prefigure the ballooning technology of the Montgolfier Brothers, who are often hailed as having performed history’s first hot air balloon flight – some 74 years after de Gusmão’s balloon experiment.

7. The first ‘modern’, manned hot air balloon

1786 description of the historic Montgolfier Brothers’ 1783 balloon flight (left) / Book illustration shows five early balloon ascensions in France (right)

Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Bell, Andrew, 1726-1809, engraver., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

On 21 November 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes took to the skies on what is widely hailed as the first truly successful, manned hot air balloon flight. The model was designed by the famed Montgolfier Brothers, and the widely publicised flight lasted for about 20 minutes above Paris. It was witnessed by the French King Louis XVI and American inventor Benjamin Franklin.

8. Cayley’s glider

A modern recreation of Sir George Cayley’s model glider. 01 September 2020

Image Credit: Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Sir George Cayley, who was an English engineer, inventor and aviator, is mainly remembered for his pioneering studies and experiments with flying machines. In 1804 he successfully flew in a glider that he designed. The device had a very similar layout to a modern airplane, showcasing the key developments Cayley bought to the field.

9. The aerial steam carriage

Drawing of an Aerial Steam Carriage

Image Credit: Everett Collection /

Sir George Cayley’s work greatly influenced the designs of the British-born engineer William Samuel Henson, who patented his steam-powered flying machine in 1842. In practice, Henson’s machine was incapable of flight since it had insufficient power from its heavy steam engine. Improvements on the original blueprints would lead to the development of a more successful model in 1848. That one was able to fly for very short distances inside a hangar.

10. The albatros aircraft

Le Bris and his flying machine, Albatros II, photographed by Nadar, 1868

Image Credit: Pépin jun., Rue de Siam, Brest, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This glider was built by French sea captain and sailor Jean Marie Le Bris. In 1856, he flew briefly on the beach of Sainte-Anne-la-Palud, with his aircraft being placed on a cart towed by a horse. Reportedly, he reached a height of 100 meters and covered a distance of 200 meters. With the support of the French Navy, he built a second model in 1868, which has the distinction of being the first-ever aircraft to be photographed.

11. Victor Tatin’s airplane

Victor Tatin airplane of 1879. Original craft, at Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace

Image Credit: Uploadalt, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In 1879, the French engineer Victor Tatin created an early airplane that was powered by a compressed-air engine. His flying machine is noteworthy for being the first airplane to take off using its own power after a run on the ground. It was flown tethered to a central pole on a circular track at the military facilities of Chalais-Meudon.

12. Clément Ader’s Avion III

Clément Ader’s Avion III is displayed at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris

Image Credit: Clément Ader, CC BY-SA 2.0 BE , via Wikimedia Commons (left) / PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons (right)

The Avion III was a steam-powered aircraft built by the French inventor and engineer Clément Ader. The design of the wings was inspired by those of a bat. Trials took place in 1897, with the aircraft purportedly briefly taking off on 14 October. Ader later claimed the Avion III had flown a distance of 100 metres. Whether true or not, the demonstrations ultimately failed to impress: funding was pulled and the trials were halted for good.

On 17 December 1903 the Wright Brothers successfully completed the first manned, controlled and sustained flight in human history.
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