Copyright © A. Filippone (1999-2003). All Rights Reserved.

History Notes


The origins of aerodynamics can be traced back to the early attempts to fly. In this respect the Wright Brothers were among the first serious practitioners, although many contemporaries were in pursuit of the same dream. Their historic flight took place on December 17, 1903, at the sand dunes out of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Otto Lilienthal

In modern times Otto Lilienthal is credited with having attempted at least 2000 flights that kept him airborne for a total of several km. The longest flight was about 250 m down a launch base on top of a purpose-built hill. His best machines had an aerodynamic efficiency L/D estimated at about 8.

Lilienthal took off for the first time in the summer of 1891 with an “aircraft” (more properly a glider) having a wing span of 7.5 metres and a wing area of just 15 sq. metres. Over the next five years he attempted to fly nearly every day. He took off from his hilltop at Stolln, south of Berlin, before crashing to death in 1896. Wilbur Wright wrote in 1912 that “no one else grasped the basics of human flight as clearly and throughly as he did”. The Frenchman Ferdinand Ferber wrote that his studies were “from step to jump, from jump to flight”.

Lilienthal was the first to understand the virtues of the curved wing. During his meticolous investigations he understood that taking off was not as difficult as controlling his flight. Soon he realized that he also needed lateral stabilization, which could be achieved by adding a vertical rudder. Besides the rudder, he is the inventor of the airfield, having built a 15 metre high Flying Hill (Fliegeberg) at Berlin-Lichtenfelde (1894), after trials at several different locations convinced him that he needed to work more systematically.

Lilienthal’s theoretical work was summarized in his book “The Flight of Birds as a Model for the Art of Aviation” (Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst, 1890). This book was the most important scientific publication on flight to appear at the end of the 19th century. In the meantime the media turned him into a hero. Newspapers around the world called him “The Flying Man” or “The Winged Prussian”.

Early Studies

Various scientists and engineers worked independently from one another in France for the greatest part of the late XIX century. P. Jullien flew a model airplane in 1858; F. Du Temple is credited with having made a hop in a powered aircraft in 1874; Alphonse Penaud added stability to his models in the early 1870s, collected experimental, data and published the book Recherches sur la Resistance de l’Air (1878); Octave Chanute collected scientific data without ever attempting to fly, as did Louis P. Mouillard for the soaring flight of birds (L’Empire de l’Air, 1871).

Other early prectitioners of aerodynamics included Renard in France (1888), Faccioli in Italy (1895), von Lossl in Germany (1895), Wellner in Austria (1898).

Early Competitors

Ferber knew of the Wrights experiences of 1901-1902. Henri Farman succeding in flying for a minute in 1907. Louis Bleriot designed and built several unsuccessful airplanes until he became a national hero: a canard tail-first (Bleriot V); a tandem wing (Bleriot VI); a tractor monoplane (Bleriot VII); a pusher biplane (Bleriot X). He became a legend by being the first aviator to cross the English Channel on board of his Bleriot XI.

It is believed that the Wright Brothers were the first to succeed in taking off on a heavier-than-air aircraft because their design was the best compromise among lift capabilities, engine power and stability characteristics, although the aircraft was nominally inferior to some competitors. Samuel P. Langley was one of the competitors that was not lucky enough to fly a manned aircraft in due time, although he seemed well ahead with his models (Experiments in Aerodynamics, 1891).


Selected References

  • Wolko KS (editor). The Wright Flyier – An Engineering Perspective. , NASA and Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1987.

  • Gibbs-Smith CH. The Rebirth of European Aviation, 1902-1908: A Study of the Wright Brothers’ Influence, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, London 1974.

  • Stevens JH. The Shape of the Aeroplane, Hutchinson Publishers Ltd, London, 1953.

  • Wegener PP. What Makes Airplanes Fly, Springer- Verlag, 1991.

Full Reference List (with book reviews)

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Copyright © A. Filippone (1999-2003). All Rights Reserved.