History Who Really Invented the Airplane Part 3

About the controversy in history over who invented the airplane. A look at the various claims including Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers.





Jules Verne's fictional accounts of flying machines inspired young Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee plantation owner, to fantasies about flight. At age 18, when his father's death made him a millionaire, Santos-Dumont sailed for France, where he became engrossed in internal-combustion engines and automobiles. In 1897 he flew in a balloon for the first time and thereafter became one of the foremost balloonists in France.

In 1905 he built an airplane consisting of three box kites connected to each other by bamboo poles, powered by a steam engine. Strapping his machine to the undercarriage of a balloon, Santos-Dumont went aloft, started the airplane's engine, climbed into the cockpit, and cut the plane loose from the balloon. He plummeted to the ground. However, he persevered and built a new model, which he tested outside Paris on Oct. 23, 1906. With the same kite-shaped wings but a lighter gasoline engine, this airplane successfully took off and flew 722 ft. before landing. Qualified witnesses verified and documented the takeoff and flight. The French government recognized this as the first time a human being had flown in a heavier-than-air machine.

For the next four years Santos-Dumont continued his aeronautical experiments, but in 1910 he contracted disseminating sclerosis and never flew again. He returned to Brazil in 1928, became increasingly depressed over the fact that world powers were using airplanes in warfare, and committed suicide four years later.


Orville and Wilbur Wright, the sons of a midwestern minister, displayed a high mechanical aptitude even in their youth. This, coupled with investigative natures, made Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) ideal inventors. By their early twenties they had built a printing press and designed a new bicycle, which they also manufactured. They became interested in flight by reading about the glider experiments of German aerialist Otto Lilienthal.

For three years Orville and Wilbur built and tested gliders on the tree-barren sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. During the winters at their bicycle plant in Dayton, O., they experimented with new wing shapes and control systems in a wind tunnel that they also invented. By December of 1903, the brothers were back at Kitty Hawk with their first powered airplane, a double-winged, box kite-shaped contraption with an undercarriage attached to a stationary monorail track. On Dec. 17 Orville stretched out in the middle of the lower wing and took off on a 12-sec., 120-ft. flight. That same day, Wilbur flew for 59 sec., covering 852 ft. The tests were observed by five witnesses. The brothers continued to perfect their machine, and in 1906 they were granted a U.S. patent for their invention. However, they did not publicly demonstrate their airplane until 1908, after which they were awarded U.S. Army and French commercial contracts to manufacture them.

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