U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

More Precursors to Powered Flight

The last three decades before 1900 saw both major and minor developments in aviation and more attempts at flight—some of which were moderately successful.

In 1874, the English engineer Thomas Moy designed a 120-pound (54.4-kilogram) model tandem-wing monoplane (with two wings on the same longitudinal level). It had a 15-foot wingspan.  The front wing had an area of 50 square feet (4.6 square meters) and the rear one had an area of 64 square feet (5.9 square meters). A 3-horsepower (2.2 kilowatt) steam engine powered two large fan-shaped propellers that were six feet (1.83 meters) in diameter and were installed between the two wing surfaces. They provided sufficient thrust to lift the model six inches (15 centimeters) off the ground. First tested in June 1875 at the Crystal Palace in London, England, the Aerial Steamer was the first machine of its kind to fly successfully. 

Thomas Moy's Aerial Steamer, 1874. lifted six inches (15 centimeters) off the ground.
Thomas Moy's Aerial Steamer, 1874. lifted six inches (15 centimeters) off the ground.

The Frenchman Alphonse Pénaud was one of the most important figures of the period and was considered by some to be as significant as George Cayley. He theorized about wing contours and aerodynamic principles and applied them successfully to model airplanes, helicopters, and ornithopters. Pénaud used a propulsion system that consisted of twisted rubber strips. His best-known model was his 1871 “planophore,” which was a 20-inch-long monoplane with an 18‑inch (45 centimeter) wingspan. It had tapered dihedral wings and an adjustable tail assembly with dihedral wingtips that provided lateral stability. The machine had a two-blade pusher propeller, eight inches (20 centimeters) in diameter. The model was tested in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris on August 18, 1871, and flew 131 feet (40 meters) in 11 seconds. The planophore was the first really stable airplane in history and marked the beginning of powered flight trials.

 Pénaud designed this “planophore” in 1871.
Pénaud designed this “planophore” in 1871.

Pénaud next developed a two‑passenger, full-size amphibian monoplane with his mechanic Paul Gauchot. He applied for the patent in 1876, but the model was never built. This two-seater had several features that would appear in future aircraft: double elevators, a rudder connected to a fixed vertical fin, counter-rotating propellers, a glass-domed cockpit, retractable landing gear with shock absorbers, and piloting instruments. The estimated weight was to have been 2,635 pounds (1,195 kilograms), and the speed 60 miles per hour (96.5 kilometers per hour). His designs never came to fruition as he committed suicide in 1880 at the age of thirty. 

 Pénaud designed this monoplane.
Pénaud designed this monoplane.

Another Frenchman, Victor Tatin became one of early aviation's most authoritative theorists. He built a model in 1879 with a fuselage that acted as a tank for the compressed air that drove a small engine linked to two tractor propellers. The model had a 75-inch (1.9-meter) wingspan. It was attached to a pole, and flew in circles around the pole for some 49 feet (15 meters).

Mouillard’s fixed-wing glider with cambered wings
Mouillard’s fixed-wing glider with cambered wings.

In 1881, Louis Mouillard wrote L’Empire de l’Air (Empire of the Air), in which he proposed fixed-wing gliders with cambered bird-like wings.   He also proposed that aviators master gliding to gain the skills needed to pilot an aircraft. He had been experimenting with gliders since 1856, and although his own gliders were unsuccessful, he realized the importance of gliding to the future of aviation—a perspective that was later shared by Otto Lilienthal. Mouillard divided aviators into two camps—pilots who had the skill to maneuver an aircraft through the air and “chauffeurs” who focused on the engineering of an aircraft and who attempted to fly a powered machine before they had any true idea of flight control.

In Russia in 1884, Alexander F. Mozhaisky, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, achieved the second powered takeoff in history. (Felix Du Temple achieved the first in 1874.) Mozhaisky designed and built a steam-powered monoplane airplane in 1881-1883. The monoplane had three tractor propellers driven by a steam engine. The plane was successfully tested at Krasnoye Selo, near St Petersburg, Russia, in 1884, with the volunteer I.N. Golubev at the controls. It was launched down a ramp and used momentum to “fly” about 98 feet (30 meters).

The American John J. Montgomery built a monoplane glider in 1883 and made the first gliding flight in the United States. The glider crashed and was destroyed at the end of its first flight.   Montgomery barely escaped with his life.

An Englishman, Horatio F. Phillips demonstrated Cayley’s theories of lift. In 1884, he patented eight wing-like sections of various widths and curvatures. He used a “wind box” to determine how fast an oncoming stream of air should be to sustain each different form carrying the same weight. His experiments proved that a curved surface creates more lift than a flat surface.

Phillips designed this man-carrying aircraft.
Phillips designed this man-carrying aircraft.

In 1891, Phillips devised and patented an improved wing section designed to create even more lift. He explained that low pressure is produced on the blade’s upper surface, while high pressure is produced on the underside. Since high pressure always moves toward low pressure, the high pressure below pushes the blade upward to the low pressure and creates lift. In 1893, he created a 350-pound (158.8-kilogram) model aircraft that ran around a 628-foot (181.4-meter) circular track attached to a central pole. The model rose about three feet (91 centimeters) off the ground when it reached a speed of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour). This model had fifty rows of superimposed small winglets arranged in a slat-like fashion on wheels.   Each slat was twenty-two feet (6.7 meters) long and 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) wide and was mounted two inches from the next slat. A coal-fired engine turned a twin-bladed propeller 400 revolutions per minute.

Hargrave’s ornithopter with radial rotary engine
Hargrave’s ornithopter with radial rotary engine.

In 1889, Lawrence Hargrave of Australia built the first radial rotary airplane engine, which ran on compressed air and which he used to power his model aircraft.  This engine was an early version of the popular Gn“me engines that would be used to power many French aircraft in the early twentieth century. In 1893, he invented the box kite. His basic model was called the “Cellular Kite” and was a biplane kite that had the two wing surfaces meeting at their tips. Because it was remarkably stable and generated large amounts of lift, it received much attention in the aviation world. He also managed to be lifted a few yards into the air by a system of kites that was kept aloft by a wind of approximately eighteen miles per hour (thirty kilometers per hour). The form of Hargraves’ box kite influenced the development of Gabriel and Charles Voisin’s aircraft (which they referred to as Hargraves) and other early aircraft, as well as, some believe, indirectly the Wright brothers’ planes.

Maxim experimented with flying machines.
Maxim experimented with flying machines.

Sir Hiram Maxim, the American inventor of the machine gun who adopted British nationality, discovered several principles relating to the effect of air resistance on an aircraft’s surfaces. He studied the aerodynamic performance of wing forms and propellers—first on a whirling arm and later in a wind tunnel. He also worked on developing a powerful but lightweight steam engine. 

Maxim demonstrates lightness of his steam engine
Maxim demonstrates lightness of his steam engine.

Maxim’s primary concern was to  “construct a flying machine which could become airborne.” He built a huge steam-powered biplane in 1891 at Baldwyn’s Park, Bexley, England. It had two 180-horsepower (134-kilowatt) steam engines, each driving a pusher propeller nearly eighteen feet (5.5 meters) in diameter. The platform for the engines, boiler, and a three-person crew was forty feet (12.2 meters) long and eight feet (2.4 meters) wide. The machine measured about two hundred feet (61 meters) from end to end and had a 107-foot (32.6-meter) wingspan. To provide stability, Maxim placed an elevator fore and back and set the outer wing panels at a dihedral angle. The aircraft had a total lifting surface of four thousand square feet (371.6 square meters) and weighed eight thousand pounds (3,628.7 kilograms) with the crew. It was the largest flying machine ever built up to that time. The four wheels of the machine rested upon straight rails that were 1,800 feet (548.6 meters) long. He used the rails to launch his giant steam-powered biplane and also to prevent it from escaping its test track and climbing into uncontrollable flight.

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine.
Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine.

The “flights” began in early 1893. Although the machine could not really fly, it lifted up off the ground and shot forward more than 1,800 feet (548.6 meters). On July 31, 1894, in what was to be the last of its experiments, the machine broke loose of one of its rails while traveling at 42 miles per hour (67.6 kilometers per hour). However, the free “flight” did not last long. A piece of the broken guardrail hit the propeller, and Maxim shut off the steam.  Maxim demonstrated that a powerful engine could lift a heavy winged object from the ground.

Percy Pilcher’s Beetle.
Percy Pilcher’s Beetle.

In 1895, the Scot Percy Pilcher built a glider called the Bat. He visited Otto Lilienthal in Germany and consulted him about glider design. Pilcher’s further gliders incorporated Lilienthal’s configuration and technique, particularly the way that Lilienthal suspended himself from the glider.  In 1896, Pilcher built and flew his most successful glider, the Hawk.   It had a wheeled undercarriage and tow-line takeoff and flew up to 750 feet (229 meters). Unfortunately, he was killed in a gliding accident in 1899 just as he was preparing to test a powered triplane. Pilcher’s death signaled a pause in Britain’s participation in practical aviation. It was another decade before Great Britain developed any even moderately successful aircraft.

Pilcher flying the Hawk.
Pilcher flying the Hawk.

--Judy Rumerman


Angelucci, Enzo. World Encyclopedia of Civil Aircraft - From Leonardo da Vinci to the Present. New York: Crown Publishers, 1982.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. The Invention of the Aeroplane, 1799-1909. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc. 1966.

Moolman, Valerie and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Road to Kitty Hawk. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life, 1980.

Scott, Phil. The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

On-Line References:

"A History of the Airplane." Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation. http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/History%20of%20Airplane/history.htm.

"Pilots and Chauffeurs: 1880-1898." http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/pilots.htm.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard E

Students should develop an understanding about science and  technology.

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard D

Students should develop an understanding of motion and forces.