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The Dawn of Flight

Wright Military Flyer. See more flight pictures.
Wright State University Archives

Humans dreamed of flying thousands of years before any individual ever imagined it would be possible. Dreams of flying occurred in all civilizations and eras, to people of both genders and all ages. There is something in the human soul that longs to free oneself from gravity, to leap into the air, and speed along with the ease of the wind. Dreams of flying may be intoxicating...or terrifying. Just like flying itself.

Flight Pictures


The mere thought of people flying probably took hold in prehistoric societies. Surely hunters wished to soar above the earth to spot their prey. And primitive warriors, about to engage in tribal warfare, must have wanted wings to see whatever lay on the other side of the next hill.

­It is amazing that human flight was delayed until 1783 for lighter-than-air and 1903 for heavier-than-air flight. The materials with which to make balloons had been available for thousands of years. Simple gliding flight might have been possible for an equally long period, had there been someone with the insight to adapt the basic model provided by soaring birds into wood and fabric.

Perhaps more surprising than the delay in achieving balloon flight was the 120-year interval between the Montgolfier brothers' efforts in 1783 and the success of the Wright brothers in 1903. During that 12-decade period, there were numerous advances in science, and many brilliant individuals put their minds to accomplishing powered flight. It would seem, in retrospect, that with a concentrated effort to build on the ideas of Sir George Cayley and others, flight might have been achieved. Octave Chanute, a nineteenth century patron of flight, hoped to be the driving force behind such a group effort. He saw himself as a central clearinghouse for ideas on flight and hoped that some magic combination of personalities, brains, and ideas would solve the problem of heavier-than-air flight.

Chanute was in fact correct--it was a magic combination of personalities, brains, and ideas that solved the problem of flight, but in the persons of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Instead of the collective effort that Chanute envisaged in which his own ideas might be combined with those of Otto Lilienthal, Clement Ader, John Montgomery, the Wrights, Augustus Herring, and Samuel Pierpont-Langley to create--at last--a flying machine, it was the synergistic effort of the two quiet, reserved, and very businesslike brothers from Ohio that solved the mystery of flight.