The History of Flight and the People Who Made it Possible


As human beings watched birds and insects fly through the air, jealousy of their ability to soar has always been present. The freedom and convenience of flight has always been a desire of the human race. Stories remain of those who first tried to fly as the birds do, with little or no technology. From the first myths of the winged horse Pegasus and the doomed flight of Icarus and Daedulus to the later myths of those such as Persia’s King Kaj Kaoos and Alexander the Great who harnessed creatures to fly them around their kingdoms, one would ascertain that humans were never meant to fly. However, many continued to try; some used wings built of various materials; some used hot air to cause things to rise; and still others used motors and gliders to get, and keep humans off the ground. Finally, fly they did. Following is the story of how they succeeded.

The Aeolipile, Created by Hero

Hero of Alexandria, an inventor and scientist, had dreams of enabling man to rise in the air. There is conflicting information as to his actual lifespan, but the most accepted is that of 1st century, AD. This physicist invented a device known as an aeolipile. The intention was that air could be heated up to create steam and cause a human to rise with the steam into the air. Hero’s aeolipile had a sphere, which rested on a kettle. The idea was to heat the kettle to cause enough steam to lift the sphere off the top of the kettle. Unfortunately, this failed. However, there was movement created by the steam, and this proved the ability of heated air to kinetically move an object.

  • Hero's Aeolipile (Aeropile): This comparison of Hero’s invention, the aeolipile, to a pressure cooker, demonstrates the similarity between the two.
  • Hero's Engine: This photograph is that of Hero’s invention, the Aeolipile, kept by the National Museum of American History.
  • Allstar Network: This article demonstrates how the propulsion of a rocket into the atmosphere has its roots in the invention of the Greek man, Hero, around 100 BC.
  • The Aeolipile: Photograph and description of Hero’s invention.
  • Hero's Inventions: This brief biography of Hero(n) of ancient Alexandria explains some of his inventions as well as lists the scientific books he had written.
  • The Biography of Alexandria's Hero: Overview of Hero’s life and the studies of science in which he was interested.

The Ornithopter, Created by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was, in the fifteenth century, an artist, a scientist, an inventor, and a forward-thinking individual. His fascination with the flight of man is evident in many, many writings and diagrams created by da Vinci. His most well-known drawing was that of an ornithopter, which was a device that could enable a man to fly like a bird, using wings. There were many things wrong with his designs, the greatest of which was that man would not have the physical strength and endurance to manipulate the wings long enough to stay airborne.

  • Leonardo da Vinci: A brief overview of da Vinci’s efforts at creating an ornithopter with which he hoped to allow man to fly. Diagrams of the invention are also included.
  • Flying Machines: Explanation as to the faults in daVinci’s design for the ornithopter, as well as in his thoughts of man flying.
  • The Snowbird Has Flown: Account of a modern-day ornithopter created by students from a university in Canada that had successful flight using da Vinci’s sketches and writing as an example to follow.
  • Da Vinci's Contributions to the World of Engineering: This brief summary of da Vinci’s accomplishments, writings, and inventions, includes information on his ornithopter and his hopes of man in flight.
  • The Museum of Flight: A model of the ornithopter, created by Sandy McAusland, based on the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, for the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
  • Dream or Reality - Did da Vinci Fly?: Explanations to several of da Vinci’s writings on flight, including drawings of the ornithopter and a glider.

The First Hot Air Balloon, Created by Joseph and Jacques Mongolfier

The first hot air balloon was designed and invented in 1783 by brothers Joseph and Jacques Mongolfier. Upon noting that ashes from burnt paper rose in the air when above heat and flames, the brothers decided to further experiment with hot air and bags. Their first attempt was with a silk bag and small basket. As predicted, the heat in the bag was enough to cause the basket to rise along with the cloth. On September 19 the brothers demonstrated this publicly with a balloon made of cloth and paper. With several successes prodding them on, they allowed their first passengers on November 21 of the same year. Francois Lurent and Francois Pilatre de Rozier manned the air balloon and traveled miles before setting down. The balloon lifted over 500 feet over Paris.