Credit: Scientific American

It was 111 years ago today that the world’s first piloted, powered, controllable, heavier-than-air machine built and flown by Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air. Adding all of those qualifying adjectives had taken 120 years since the first manned flight in a balloon built by another pair of brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier.

The Wrights’ success came from their synthesis of the aviation expertise available at the time—development of a theory and method of airplane control, along with practice in an unpowered glider to develop the skills necessary to pilot their airplane. For the machine itself, they built a series of flying devices that show an increasing level of sophistication from kites to gliders to powered machine. Scientific American covered these early experiments extensively in a February 22, 1902, article [see below for an image of an unpowered glider from this article].

On December 17, 1903, at the Kill Devil Hills sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Wilbur and Orville flew the world’s first airplane. The first attempt, by Orville, only went slightly more than 36.5 meters. Opinion is still divided on whether this counts as a “flight.” Wilbur, on the fourth attempt of the day, though, went 259 meters in 59 seconds, a clear and indisputable winner of the laurels for first flight.

>> Read Scientific American Classics issue "Birth of Flight"

>> Read Scientific American Classics issue intro "Race to the Sky"

The Wright brothers weren’t satisfied, however. They wanted to sell their invention, so they retreated to Dayton, Ohio, to perfect their “aeroplane,” and it was not until October 5, 1905, when their Flyer III flew 38.6 kilometers in 39.5 minutes that they believed they had a practical airplane. Even then, their desire to sell the device made them reticent to show it off to the general public, much to the annoyance of our predecessors at this magazine, who in the January 13, 1906, issue, thundered:

“If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face—even if he has to scale a 15-story skyscraper to do so—would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?”

Credit: Scientific American

By April 7, 1906, though, the evidence had piled up and Scientific American carried a report on the 38.6-kilometer flight. On October 23, 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the notable Brazilian aviation pioneer, made a public flight. The Wrights waited almost two years to demonstrate their own airplane—but when they did, they demonstrated how far ahead of their competitors they were.

On August 8, 1908, at a racetrack near Le Mans, France, Wilbur took off from a catapult-launched system and flew in front of thousands of spectators, demonstrating fine control of his aircraft—distance, altitude, banking, speed, control. Our issue of August 29, 1908, carried an image of this flight on the cover [see photograph above] and more photographs inside:

“…in this issue the first actual detail photographs of this world-renowned aeroplane, which the Wright brothers have heretofore kept closely veiled from public view. These photographs show that, as had been supposed from the descriptions of eye witnesses and also from the minute photographs taken at long range of the machine in flight at Kitty Hawk, their motor-driven aeroplane is of the greatest simplicity and is, in fact, merely their gliding machine with a motor and propellers added.”

For more articles on the Wright brothers and the early years of flight, see the Scientific American Classics collection on “The Birth of Flight”.