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History of Engineering: The Plane

  • by: Ryan Abbot
  • On: 15, Jul 2019
4 min read

The invention of the plane was one of the most significant achievements of the last century. It has allowed us to explore the world, experience new cultures, and expand our horizons beyond what once would have been considered possible.

But how did the airplane begin? And how have planes changed and developed over time?

History of The Airplane


Early History Of Flight:

Leonardo Da Vinci

The concept of human flight has been around since at least the sixteenth century, with designs for gliders being traced back to Leonardo Da Vinci. Many original designs for aircraft focused on imitating birds, with feathers and wings being central points. These were known as ornithopters, machines which imitated birds wings with flapping motions.

In the 18th century, hot air balloons became more viable, with people being able to take short trips in them. However, this mode of transport was highly unpredictable, and difficult to control.

Sir George Caley

The first true iteration of the airplane was built by Sir George Caley in England, a kite with a movable tail which allowed it to navigate through the air. In 1799, he defined the forces of lift and drag, axiomatic in the field of aviation.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that aircraft with fixed wings and propulsion systems began to be designed. In 1874, Felix Du Temple was the first person to attempt powered flight with a steam-driven monoplane.

However, it wasn’t until the 1890s that Otto Lilienthal managed a sustained controlled flight with a glider that we could steer by shifting his body weight.

The Wright Brothers

The first sustained, controlled flight in an aircraft was achieved by the Wright Brothers in 1903.

It wasn’t until 1905 that they believed they had a practical flying machine. The 1905 Flyer was the first aircraft to have three-axis control, and would form the basis of all future planes.

The Development Of Powered Flight:

In 1889 Lawrence Hargrave invented the rotary engine, a huge step forward for powered flight.

Powered flight allowed for greater control and increased range, and made flight a viable method of transportation. Soon people were studying aviation, and learning to become pilots.

In 1909, Louis Bleriot was the first person to successfully fly across the English Channel. This had important strategic implications for the use of planes as potential weapons, something which would be put to use in the years to come.

In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first female licensed pilot in the US.

In 1914, Igor Sikorsky created a large four-engine bi-plane that was capable of flying long distances, complete with dual controls for a pilot and a co-pilot, cabin lighting, bed, and toilet. It was used for both private and military roles.

Planes In World War I

Being able to attack from the air was an exciting concept for armed forces during the First world War. By 1914, planes had been refined, and were far more reliable than they had been just a decade earlier. While they didn’t revolutionise warfare at the time, they played an important part in raids, and their early use in combat would pave the way for more vital roles in future wars.


In 1919 Hugo Junkers created the first mass produced metal aircraft, which would go on to dominate the nascent aviation industry. Over 300 models were shipped worldwide.

The Spirit Of St Louis

The first non-stop transatlantic flight was completed in 1927, by Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St Louis. The flight took 33 hours.

Planes In World War II

By the time the world descended into global war for the second time, planes had been greatly improved as weapons. Fighters and bombers became commonplace, and would routinely be seen in the skies above combat zones.

The fighter plane has been through many different iterations, learn about the future of the fighter jet.

Stealth Planes

After World War II, there was a focus on creating stealth planes that couldn’t be detected by radar. This peaked with the development of the Lockheed Blackbird during the Cold War.

Modern Planes:

Supersonic Flight

Supersonic flight has been around since 1947, when the Bell X-1 was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier. Concorde made a successful business out of supersonic flight in the 1970s, before closing down. But there is now a renewed interest in supersonic flight, thanks to improved designs.

The Future Of Flight:

Planes are constantly being improved, and the future of flight is very exciting. Planes can now fly higher and faster than ever, and thanks to new technology planes will soon be very different to previous designs.

Autonomous Planes

Autonomous planes could feasibly fly without a pilot. While the technology still has a long way to go before being perfected, autonomous technology is certainly gaining interest.

Electric Planes

Electric planes are being developed as a response to the rapid depletion of fossil fuels that have previously powered traditional models. One day we might be able to take a supersonic plane that creates zero emissions, flown by a robot, a far cry from the early wooden gliders created at the start of the previous century.

The history of the plane can be seen as the history of human ingenuity, inventing technology that allowed us to surpass our natural limitations and fly around the world. Planes are changing all the time, becoming more efficient, sustainable, and powerful.

Read more about the future of the aviation industry, or learn how plane design is changing.

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