Last month, on Origin Story, you read about the history of ships and the adventure of sailing. This month, let’s look at the origin of air travel! Here, you will learn everything about how humans managed to glide across the skies with the help of engineering excellence, and luminous clouds for company.
The idea of air travel has always interested human beings. Perhaps, seeing all those majestic birds sail over us made us wish we could fly too. Even in ancient stories from around the world, there are mentions of flying chariots, carpets and carts, long before the first human took flight. In fact, it was only in the 1480s that Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian polymath famous for painting the Mona Lisa, came up with the design for a machine that flies. Let’s see how aircrafts and air travel have evolved since then!
Lighter than air: Machines that float
One of the first successful aircrafts managed to float using gases that were lighter than air, such as heated air, hydrogen or helium. The crown jewel of this type of air travel? Hot air balloons!
French hot air balloons
A pair of siblings, known famously as the Montgolfier brothers, made the first hot air balloon in France in the year 1783. However, as interesting as their invention was, it wasn’t useful for practical purposes because it was impossible to steer the balloon! It would simply float in whichever direction the wind blew.
With more advanced technology, steering equipment were added to designs of these balloons, and soon enough, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, another French inventor, successfully flew his hot air balloon over the English Channel, (a part of the Atlantic Ocean), in 1785.
German rigid airships
With more research and development came the German rigid airships. These machines were sturdy and could carry both cargo and people over a few kilometres. Even though this wasn’t a big distance, they were still the preferred mode of air travel back in the 1920s and 30s.
However, towards the end of the 30s, the Hindenburg disaster, where a German airship caught fire as it was docking into New Jersey, put a blot on the image of these sturdy air carriers. Since then, they never regained their once golden popularity.
Heavier than air: Metal birds
The next major phase of air travel was dominated by heavier-than-air machines that used aerodynamic principles of thrust to fly across the sky, similar to birds and their wings! This is where the origin of the aeroplane started.
Orville and Wilbur Wright, famously known as the Wright brothers, are credited with designing and building the first-ever motor-operated plane. The breakthrough invention by the brothers featured a three-axis control system, which enabled a pilot to make the nose of the plane go up and down, turn the plane left and right, and change the level of the wings on the plane.
The invention of the Wright brothers’ aeroplane led to more developments in designs and materials used. This period also coincided with the First World War. For the first time in history, aeroplanes were used in warfare, to attack the enemy from above.
Post-war commercial airlines
After the Second World War, the aeroplane and air travel industry saw a huge boom. Why? Because there were so many pilots in the war who now found themselves without any job! North America capitalised on this industry by starting commercial airlines that ferried passengers.
The forgotten helicopters
In most documents that look at the history of aviation, you will find one famous machine missing – the helicopter. Why? Because helicopters are notoriously difficult to categorise! It has wings (the propellor) that moves so it is not like an aeroplane. And it is heavier than air so it’s not like an airship either! However, helicopters are possibly the first flying machine that man may have imagined. Even da Vinci’s designs from the 1480s are for a machine that moves vertically up like a helicopter.
This distinctive quality of the machine makes it ideal for navigating densely populated areas and remote parts of the world where space is a constraint.
Is space travel next?
With aeroplanes and air travel becoming common, humans have their eye on the next big frontier for travel – space. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, became the first private company to take NASA astronauts into space. NASA had to book a seat on the spacecraft, just like how you book a seat on an aeroplane, to take its astronauts to space. This successful mission has opened the doors for civilians, like us, to travel to space someday too!
If space travel becomes a reality, which part of the universe would you want to travel to? Let us know in the comments!
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Deepthi is an ambivert who is on a steady diet of good food, filter coffee, and self-improvement. Being an ardent reader, storytelling has been her first love and she enjoys exploring how to convey stories compellingly. Having studied psychology and experienced the learning and development field, Deepthi is driven to understand human behavior and to know what makes each of us unique. You are most likely to find her tucked into a cozy corner at a local cafe with a Kindle or a book in hand. If you find her there, stop by and say hello, she'd be eager to learn your story too. Until then, you can ping her at firstname.lastname@example.org for anything you may like to share.
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