FLYING MACHINES BEFORE THE WRIGHTS

Frequently Asked Questions
© 1998-2003 Carroll Gray All Rights To This Web Domain And Web Site And Contents Thereof Are Reserved



 

Did anyone manage to fly before the Wright brothers did on December 17, 1903?

The answer to this question depends upon how the word "fly" is defined. The standard on which the Wright brothers are almost universally acknowledged as being the ones who first flew consists of four parts. First, their machine was heavier-than-air, not a gas, hot-air or smoke balloon; second, their machine had a means of controlling all three axes of flight, roll, pitch and yaw; third, their machine was powered, not a glider; and fourth, The Wright Flyer was able to sustain itself in flight for a reasonable distance. While others managed to make short hops in powered machines (which lacked sufficient controls), or flew in gliders or balloons, no one before the Wrights managed to accomplish all four aspects of flying at the same time.

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Why are the words "Flying Machines" used instead of "Aeroplanes" or "Airplanes"?

While it would perfectly proper to apply the term "Flying Machine" to any mechanical aerial device, the term should only refer to machines built or designed prior to the 1903 Wright Flyer. This would clarify the use of the term, which was in vogue prior to the Wrights and which was supplanted by the word "Aeroplane" (in its later meaning, see the next question) and later "Airplane."

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What did the word "Aeroplane" first mean?

Originally, "Aeroplane" only referred to an inclined flat lifting surface. Even a flat surface will generate some amount of lift when presented at a shallow angle to oncoming air. There was a long debate between designers of the early period of aeronautical design as to whether an "Aeroplane" or an "Aerocurve" (see next question) was better to use on a Flying Machine. "Aeroplanes" were simpler to construct and easier to repair. Of course, an "Aeroplane" didn't generate as much lift as an "Aerocurve." Ultimately curved wing structures were developed which generated a great amount of lift while causing relatively little drag. From about 1897 to 1918 "Aeroplane" was used to denote the entire flying device, not simply flat lifting surfaces.

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What was an "Aerocurve"?

Just as an "Aeroplane" originally referred to an inclined flat lifting surface, the term "Aerocurve" was used to describe a curved lifting surface, what we would today call the "wing" of an airplane. This has caused some confusion when reading older aeronautical books, for phrases such as "His flying machine utilized an aeroplane and not an aerocurve" may seem to a modern reader to be almost meaningless. Over time the word "Aeroplane" became synonymous with the entire flying device, not just a flat lifting surface. After World War I in the U.S. "Airplane" supplanted "Aeroplane" as the word used to describe a heavier-than-air human-carrying flying device.

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What did the word "Sustainer" mean?

"Sustainer" referred to the part of a flying machine which generated the list to "sustain" a flying machine in the air. The words "sustainer" or "sustainers" were reserved for reference to curved lifting surfaces. Horatio Phillips popularized the term, which he applied to his curved lifting surfaces.

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What was an "Ornithopter"?

Ornithopters is the term applied to Flying Machines which utilize flapping wings as the propelling power. Many people, quite reasonably, attempted to imitate the motion of bird wings, usually by attaching wing-like structures to arms. However, humans weigh much more than birds relative to the power which can be produced. Birds, weighing very little, can generate a tremendous amount of energy. For a long while it was believed that successful human-powered Ornithopters could never fly. Recently, however, a number of ingenious attempts to use human energy to power very lightweight flapping-wing structures have been made. The following web sites can provide more information on recent attempts to build a successful human-powered ornithopter Flying Machine: Silver Shooting Stars in Japan, Project Ornithopter and the Ornithopter Society web site, which offers free plans for building a model ornithopter.

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Why was a steam engine not a suitable powerplant for a Flying Machine?

Steam engines would seem, at first thought, to be ideal powerplants for Flying Machines, since they can be made very light for the power they produce and can be built with a closed water/steam loop, so the same water can be used again and again. However, steam engines require tremendous amounts of heat to produce significant energy and therefore require large amounts of fuel (and therefore weight) to be carried onboard, which ultimately limits the duration of flight. The Henson Aerial Steam Carriage, the model Flying Machines of John Stringfellow, the Avitor Hermes, Jr. of Frederick Marriott, Felix du Temple's monoplane, A. F. Mozhaiski's monoplane, the bat-like machines of Clement Ader and the enormous Test-Rig of Hiram Maxim were some of the Flying Machines which utilized steam engines.

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What was a Flying Machine's pilot called?

There wasn't a single term in general use for the person who attempted to fly a Flying Machine. However, "Operator" was the most common term applied to someone who was supposed to control a Flying Machine

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