Who were the pioneers of aviation?

[1] Da Vinci’s flying machine was a testament to birds, a species that the genius himself studied to invent something to rule the skies. 

This article I hope to answer a thesis that could help all readers learn something new. I am striving for that sort of feat, and I am reaching that moment when every article is difficult to reproduce the former’s quality. I have always been fascinated by inventions themselves, how it took the world by storm and revolutionised our way of life socially, politically or even militarily. I have divided this study into three main parts – one being the ancient, the Renaissance and the other being the early modern parts. Regarding the ancient sector and Renaissance, this analysis will incorporate the building blocks of aviation through ancient Greco-Roman experiments and designs by the Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci. I will continue with early modern inventors – the Montgolfier and Wright Brothers, known for contributing in the fabrication of the hot-air balloon and airplane inventions. Comments are appreciated.


1) Ancient Era – Chinese, Greeks and Romans 

Many of the ancient attempts to rule the skies came down to countless experiments. Most people including me would see aviation derived from birds being pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci, but the Roman engineer, Archytas of Tarentum had constructed a wooden bird on a rotating rod, propelled by steam in circa 400 B.C. [2] Around 600 years later, the Chinese used kites as a way to perform religious ceremonies and to test weather conditions. [2, 3] Moreover, under the guidance of Greek scientist, Hero of Alexandria, invented the aeolipile. A container, a circle with two L-shaped tubes at either end, is filled with water and heated. [3] From this, the steam evaporates and rotates the whole container, essentially creating the very first engine model for flight engineering.


2) The Renaissance Era – Da Vinci and his passion for flight  

During the mid-15th century, a young Da Vinci was intrigued by many ways to conquer the skies. Through much observation of birds and bats’ bone structures, coupling with human anatomy, condition during flight (wind direction, speed weather) and dissection of these animals, Da Vinci was able to create many inventions – including those of parachutes, helicopters, ornithopters (aircraft that is flown manually by flapping its wings rather than fixed wings that modern mechanic airplanes have), man-generated airplane and the human eagle, but to name a few [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. This was significant, as the Renaissance Man drew up many plans in his famous notebooks, portfolios and letters. Although it was believed that he was unsuccessful with his experiments, it can definitely be noted that Da Vinci was the pioneer of the aviation. It would take the world another 400 years to conquer the skies with Sir George Cayley and Lilienthal’s gliders in the 18th and 19th century respectively [7]. Unfortunately, however, according to Martin Kemp, a renowned art historian from Oxford University, has observed that despite Da Vinci’s appreciation for natural processes, he did not have extensive knowledge on dynamics and statics [8]. As a result, this hampered the chances for his works to succeed properly. I would highly recommend watching these modern replicas of Da Vinci’s works or design concepts on aviation machines: 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYmF7-JWCVA, 2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iOcoIxlFzY and 3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj6kMZBrUq4.


3.1) Early Modern Era – Montgolfier Brothers- hot-air balloon

The Montgolfier Brothers, Joseph and Etienne observed that hot air rises, most notably as smoke carries unburned paper in the air. From this analogy, they began their first major experiment in November 1782, and filled small silk bags with rising smoke [2]. Little was known that around 80 years ago, in 1709, Bartolomeu Laurenco de Gusmao had already delighted the Portuguese royalty with his discovery. Under the guidance of Professor Charles in the Académie des Sciences in Paris, he had suggested to use hydrogen with the hot-air balloon [2]. This was significant, as hydrogen was extremely flammable particularly on silk fabrics. Consequently, with the Robert brothers – Marie-Noël and Jean-Robert, they had recommend to use silk covered with rubber to propel the hot-air balloon. This was proudly exhibited in the nobility areas around the Eiffel Tower [2]. Here is a reasonably long documentary clip about their invention: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2jPDAU4l-o.

3.2) Early Modern Era – Wright Brothers – airplanes 

Wilbur and Orville Wright, two Americans of English descent from Ohio, were deeply inspired by German engineer Lilienthal, a developer in the glides. The Wright Brothers, armed with their talent, humility and passion for aeronautics, were in a quest to find adjustment of the wings to the right and left, enabling angles for the plane to fly properly. [9] Throughout their careers, like their predecessors, the Wright Brothers were very much in the case of trial and error, perfecting each of the inventions until it reached to a functioning point. For example, in 1903, they had made their own motor propeller with 12 horsepower units. This was significant, as the French historian, Charles Dolfus, observed in French, that they have changed the face of the earth. [9] Later in the year on December 17th 1903, they were recognised to have created an aircraft, the Flyer I, where it were to embark and set off by itself from the ground at 30 mph. Furthermore, in 1904, the Flyer II was fabricated and with 80 short flights, the Wright Brothers were able to practise controlling and manoeuvring the aircraft for around 45 minutes, as opposed to many their European counterparts for around 5 minutes. [9] However, unfortunately for Wilbur and Orville, their invention failed when the media wanted to showcase their invention. In the end, the Flyer II was burned, and works for a more sturdy craft in the Flyer III followed. Here is raw footage of the Wright Brothers in Le Mans, France, exhibiting their glider in public: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-CvkEUSAO4.

In summary, the ancient Romans, Chinese and Greeks were the starting blocks for aviation, recorded in history as some small-scale designs, namely the wooden bird, kite and the aeolipile, all contributed in future designs. It must be noted that the aviation process was a trial and error, a development that crossed centuries until the modern ages to perfect.


Firstly, Leonardo da Vinci, with his copious pamphlets, notebooks and extensive research, put forward many designs that were inspired by birds with the motion during flight, particularly that of the ornithopters. Unfortunately, these designs only worked in theory and on paper, it was not until around 400 years later that modern scientists, engineers and art historians began to collaborate to assess the liability of his inventions. Remaining in Europe, we have the Montgolfier Brothers, who were mistaken to be the first bunch to invent the hot-air balloon, as with the Portuguese, Bartolomeu Laurenco de Gusmao, who had already delighted the Portuguese royalty with his discovery. They must be accredited, however, to have joint efforts with Professor Charles and the Robert brothers to create a rubber-coated fabric so that the then newly-discovered gas of hydrogen could burn harmlessly and raise the aircraft into the skies. Finally, we have the Wright Brothers, whose gliders and aircrafts, called the Flyer I, II and III, inspired by the German engineer Lilienthal, enabled their machines to be the recognised as the first to go aloft for around 30 to 45 minutes. I hope you have enjoyed your read on here once again, and I shall return in the next edition soon enough, so stay tune for more! 🙂



[1] http://www.leonardodavinci.net/images/gallery/flyingmachine4_l.jpg

[2] Berliner, D., Aviation: Reaching for the Sky, http://books.google.com.hk/books?id=Efr2Ll1OdqMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=aviation&hl=en&sa=X&ei=fPIlUpiABaauiQe92YG4BQ&ved=0CDEQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=aviation&f=false, Page 8-9, 13-18

[3] http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blearlyflight.htm

[4] http://books.google.com.hk/books?id=6wyF_sEAwLUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=da+vinci+inventions&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gvAlUqGXMMufiAeFuYHACQ&ved=0CEsQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=flying&f=false

[5] http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blearlyflight2.htm

[6] http://books.google.com.hk/books?id=amqdoeJLzagC&printsec=frontcover&dq=leonardo+da+vinci+flying+citations&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XK8qUvS_AubOiAe1j4DoAg&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=flying&f=false, Pages 56-57

[7] http://inventors.about.com/od/fstartinventions/a/Airplane.htm

[8] Kemp, M., Leonardo Da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006), http://books.google.com.hk/books?id=ZuLvRD16qWMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=martin+kemp&hl=en&sa=X&ei=buIqUpbfDemhigew9oH4Ag&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=military&f=false, date of access: 7/9/2013

[9] Gibbs-Smith, H. C., The Wright Brothers: Aviation pioneers and their work 1899-1911, (NMSI Trading Ltd., London, 2002), http://www.google.com.hk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=NzVl2tA6rpUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=wright+brothers+aviation&ots=4gQg7M2YAo&sig=eW_CR0cwcJmP09ZLBehTPBbKmKw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=wright%20brothers%20aviation&f=false, Pages 3-14, date of access: 8/9/2013