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History of Airplanes

Before the end of the 18th century, few people had applied themselves to the study of flight. One was Leonardo da Vinci, during the 15th century. Leonardo was preoccupied chiefly with bird flight and with flapping-wing machines, called ornithopters. His aeronautical work lay unknown until late in the 19th century, when it could furnish little of technical value to experimenters but was a source of inspiration to aspiring engineers. Apart from Leonardo's efforts, three devices important to aviation had been invented in Europe in the Middle Ages and had reached a high stage of development by Leonardo's time-the windmill, an early propeller; the kite, an early airplane wing; and the model helicopter.

Between 1799 and 1809 the English baronet Sir George Cayley created the concept of the modern airplane. Cayley abandoned the ornithopter tradition, in which both lift and thrust are provided by the wings, and designed airplanes with rigid wings to provide lift, and with separate propelling devices to provide thrust. Through his published works, Cayley laid the foundations of aerodynamics. He demonstrated, both with models and with full-size gliders, the use of the inclined plane to provide lift, pitch, and roll stability; flight control by means of a single rudder-elevator unit mounted on a universal joint; streamlining; and other devices and practices. In 1853, in his third full-size machine, Cayley sent his unwilling coachman on the first gliding flight in history.

The English inventor William Samuel Henson published in 1843 his patented design for an Aerial Steam Carriage. Henson's design did more than any other to establish the form of the modern airplane, a fixed-wing monoplane with propellers, fuselage, and wheeled landing gear, and with flight control by means of rear elevator and rudder. Steam-powered models made by Henson in 1847 were promising but unsuccessful.

German aeronautical engineer Otto Lilienthal and American inventor Samuel Pierpont Langley had been working for several years on flying machines. Between 1891 and 1896 Lilienthal made thousands of successful flights in hang gliders he designed. Lilienthal hung in a frame between the wings and controlled his gliders entirely by swinging his torso and legs in the direction he wished to go. While successful as gliders, his designs lacked a control system and a reliable method for powering the craft. He was killed in a gliding accident in 1896.

Langley began experimenting in 1892 with a steam-powered, unmanned aircraft, and in 1896 made the first successful flight of any mechanically propelled heavier-than-air craft. Launched by catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia, the unmanned Aerodrome, as Langley called it, suffered from design faults. The Aerodrome never successfully carried a person, and thus prevented Langley from earning the place in history claimed by the Wright brothers.

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