Who flew first?
A recent news article had researchers laying claim for the first heavier than air flight to Gustave Whitehead, whom his supporters have claimed flew several times before the Wright Brothers in 1903, namely two years earlier.
In his memory, then, here are a few other pre-Wright would-be fliers you probably never heard of:
Sir George Cayley, 6th Baronet of Brompton (1773-1857)
Mr. Cayley was an engineer and is considered to be the first to understand the principles behind flight. In 1799, more than a century before the Wright Brothers, he set forth the concept of the flying machine as a fixed-winged aircraft with separate systems for lift, propulsion and control. In 1804 he successfully flew a model glider which had the layout of a modern aircraft.
William Samuel Henson (1812-1888)
Henson was an inventor, and made his mark on aviation primarily with the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage, which he designed along with fellow engineer John Stringfellow in 1842. He received a patent in 1843 and had grand visions for his Aerial Transit Company. Henson built a scale model of his design, which made one tentative steam-powered “hop” as it lifted, or bounced, off its guide wire. Attempts were made to fly the small model, and a larger model with a 20 foot wing span, between 1844 and 1847, without success. Henson grew discouraged, married and emigrated in 1849 to the United States, while Stringfellow continued to experiment with aviation.
Otto Lilenthal (1848-1896)
Born in Prussia, Lilenthal became known as the Glider King for his work. He began his experiments in 1867, which were interrupted when he volunteered to serve in the Franco-Prussian War. Five years later he founded his own company to make boilers and steam engines. Lilienthal published Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889.
During his short flying career, Lilienthal developed a dozen models of monoplanes, wing flapping aircraft and two biplanes. Lilenthal became well known for his flights and was visited by many flight pioneers. He died when his glider stalled and he fell nearly fifty feet while still in the glider.
Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906)
Langley was an astronomer and physicist who tried to make a working heavier than air aircraft. His models flew, but his two attempts at piloted flight were not successful. Langley began experimenting with rubber-band powered models and gliders in 1887. He had his first success in 1896, and in 1898 he received a war grant from the Smithsonian to build a piloted airplane, which he called an “Aerodrome.” When Langley received word from his friend Octave Chanute of the Wright brothers’ success with their 1902 glider, he attempted to meet the Wrights, but they politely evaded his request. Langley’s attempt to cross the Potomac River twice failed, damaging his reputation, which the Smithsonian would later try to salvage. Langley today is remembered as the inventor of the bolometer, which is used for measuring infrared radiation. Langley Field in Virginia is named in his honor.
Octave Chanute (1832-1910)
The French-born Chanute was a railway engineer who first became interested in aviation during a visit to Europe in 1875. He provided the Wright Brothers with help and advice, helping publicize their flying experiments. Chanute was too old to fly himself, and so tested hang gliders with Augustus Herring and William Avery. Chanute was open with others about his work, which eventually led to friction with the Wright Brothers, although Wilbur Wright delivered the eulogy at his funeral.