When I think of early aviation, my mind only goes back to 1903, when the Wright brothers got their powered and controlled aircraft into flight. They were the first to combine power and control in their aircraft, but, indeed, humans had been creating flying objects for centuries before the Wright brothers came around.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings for a flying machine

Some of the earliest flying objects were gliders, which were created as far back as the 9th century (the first inventor being a Muslim jack-of-all-trades named Abbas Ibn Firnas from the modern day city of Ronda, Spain). Eiler of Malmesbury, an English monk, created a glider in 1010 AD and flew it out of Malmesbury Abbey. Unfortunately, he broke both of his legs in the flight and his Abbot didn’t allow him to continue in his aviation experiments. In 1783, two French brothers created a lighter-than-air balloon that could carry humans…but it could only go downwind.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. Just a decade after the Wright brothers made their first heavier-than-air flight, airplanes were being used to great effect in WWI. But airplanes were rivaled by a new upstart: airships manufactured by the Zeppelin company. In early days, Zeppelins could fly longer distances than airplanes, such as the Graf Zeppelin which made an around-the-world flight in 1929. However, airplane design quickly outpaced the Zeppelins. The age of airships ended with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 and, though there have been attempts to restore their glory, they remain a fringe interest.

Just a century after the Wright brothers, the aircraft SpaceShipOne made a successful flight into space. Plans are in development for this aircraft’s successors to soon bring commercial passengers into space. Meanwhile, other aircraft designs are encompassing alternative sources of energy such as ethanol, electricity, and solar power. The aviation industry continues to grow in outstanding bounds…just don’t fly those solar planes at night!