The dream of flying is as old as mankind itself. However, the concept of the airplane has only been around for two centuries. Before that time, men and women tried to navigate the air by imitating the birds. They built machines with flapping wings called ornithopters. On the surface, it seemed like a good plan. After all, there are plenty of birds in the air to show that the concept does work. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
An ornithopter -- it's every bit as impractical as it looks.
The trouble is, it works better at bird-scale than it does at the much larger scale needed to lift both a man and a machine off the ground. So folks began to look for other ways to fly. Beginning in 1783, a few aeronauts made daring, uncontrolled flights in lighter-than-air balloons, but this was hardly a practical way to fly. There was no way to get from here to there unless the wind was blowing in the desired direction.
An early balloon.
It wasn¡¯t until the turn of the nineteenth century that an English baronet from the gloomy moors of Yorkshire conceived a flying machine with fixed wings, a propulsion system, and movable control surfaces. This was the fundamental concept of the airplane. Sir George Cayley also built the first true airplane ¡ª a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. It was crude, but it proved his idea worked, and from that first humble glider evolved the amazing machines that have taken us to the edge of space at speeds faster than sound.
This wing of the museum focuses on the history of the airplane, from its conception in 1799 to our hopes for its future. Because we are a museum of early aviation, we don¡¯t spend a great deal of time on those years after Orville Wright closed the doors of the Wright Company in 1916. We concentrate on the development of the airplane before World War I, when flying machines were odd contraptions of stick, cloth, and wire; engines were temperamental and untrustworthy; and pilots were never quite sure whether they¡¯d be able to coax their machine into the air or bring it down in one piece.