As the first people to invent, build and fly an airplane, the Wright Brothers are the most famous innovators in the Aerospace & Aviation industry.
However, the Wright Brothers’ first airplane followed centuries of work and experimentation. To quote Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants” – the Wright Brothers owe their success in part to others who made great leaps in aerodynamics.
The Middle Ages lacked advancement in aerodynamics until the genius of Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519). The Wright Brothers and Da Vinci started their Aerospace & Aviation journey in the same way: watching birds fly. Da Vinci had an ever-expanding curiosity for all things natural and was known for buying caged birds to set free immediately so he could observe the freedom of flight. In his Codex on the Flight of Birds, Da Vinci revealed:
“A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements…We may therefore say that such an instrument constructed by man is lacking in nothing except the life of the bird, and this life must be supplied from man.”
When others could only dream of flying, Leonardo Da Vinci had already identified the possibility of aircraft. Humans could achieve flight by understanding and replicating the motions and forces involved in the process of flying.
Da Vinci was the first to study and quantify aerodynamic phenomena and movements, and he also designed flying devices such as aircraft and parachutes. Leonardo’s “Ornithopter”, was one of the first designs for a flying machine powered by lying on the stomach and flapping the wings, just like a bird. However, engineering pioneer Abbas Ibn Firnas managed to fly hundreds of years before Da Vinci was even born.
Da Vinci’s other innovations included establishing the Continuity Equation by experimenting with the movement of water and air and noticing that the velocity of water increases in narrower parts of a river. The Continuity Equation led to the modern Venturis, a device used in Aerospace & Aviation and adopted in Motorsports by Colin Chapman’s revolutionary Lotus car design. Leonardo Da Vinci studied birds and fish to discover some of the basic forces of flight such as lift, thrust (propulsion) and drag (air resistance) and the importance of streamlined shapes – principles that are used today across the aerospace, aviation, automotive industries.
Although Da Vinci was an industry innovator and pioneer of aerodynamics, his ideas were not published until the 19th and 20th Century, paving the way for George Cayley (1773 –1857) to become the most notable practical contributor to aircraft engineering. Labelled “The English Leonardo” and “The Father of Aviation”, Cayley was an outstanding English engineer who, without access to Da Vinci’s work, reached some of the same ideas but pursued beyond previous limits. Cayley designed, built and flew his aircraft and published written works that explained his discoveries and influenced the future of aircraft construction and engineering.
Cayley’s work used Da Vinci’s inspiration to set the ground rules of modern aircraft engineering. Da Vinci’s aircraft design included flapping wings to create both lift and thrust but Cayley separated the two, proposing fixed wings to generate lift and creating flappers to generate thrust. Cayley was also the first person to identify all four vector forces that affect a “heavier than air” flying machine: lift, drag, thrust and gravity (weight) and the first one to design an aircraft with functions for each force. This knowledge propelled Cayley into designing efficient cambered wings, which are essential to any modern airplane.
Predicting that an engine was needed to fly with proper thrust and lift, Cayley sketched the first diagrams showing the interaction of different aerodynamic forces during flight. He introduced wired or lightweight wheels common in bicycles, cars and airplanes today, designed the first flying model airplane (in 1804, almost a century before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903) and built the first human-controlled glider.
Wright Brother Wilbur acknowledged George Cayley’s importance to the advancement of aerodynamics and the science of flight before their time. The unprecedented advancements in Aerospace & Aviation engineering over the 20th century would have never been possible without “standing on the shoulders” of such giants as Leonardo Da Vinci and George Cayley.