The discovery of hydrogen gas in the 18th century led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon, at almost exactly the same time that the Montgolfier brothers rediscovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights. Various theories in mechanics by physicists during the same period of time, notably fluid dynamics and Newton’s laws of motion, led to the foundation of modern aerodynamics, most notably by Sir George Cayley.
Balloons, both free-flying and tethered, began to be used for military purposes from the end of the 18th century, with the French government establishing Balloon Companies during the Revolution.
The term aviation, noun of action from stem of Latin avis “bird” with suffix-ation meaning action or progress, was coined in 1863 by French pioneer Guillaume Joseph Gabriel de La Landelle (1812–1886) in “Aviation ou Navigation aérienne sans balloons”.
Experiments with gliders provided the groundwork for heavier-than-air craft, and by the early-20th century, advances in engine technology and aerodynamics made controlled, powered flight possible for the first time. The modern airplane with its characteristic tail was established by 1909 and from then on the history of the airplane became tied to the development of more and more powerful engines.
The first great ships of the air were the rigid dirigible balloons pioneered by Ferdinand von Zeppelin, which soon became synonymous with airships and dominated long-distance flight until the 1930s when large flying boats became popular. After World War II, the flying boats were in their turn replaced by land planes, and the new and immensely powerful jet engine revolutionized both air travel and military aviation.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the advent of digital electronics produced great advances in flight instrumentation and “fly-by-wire” systems. The 21st century saw the large-scale use of pilotless drones for military, civilian and leisure use. With digital controls, inherently unstable aircraft such as flying wings became possible.
The origin of mankind’s desire to fly is lost in the distant past. From the earliest legends, there have been stories of men strapping birdlike wings, stiffened cloaks or other devices to themselves and attempting to fly, typically by jumping off a tower. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the earliest known, others originated from India, China, and the European Middle Age. During this early period, the issues of life, stability, and control were not understood, and most attempts ended in serious injury or death.
In medieval Europe, the earliest recorded tower jump dates from 852 AD, when Armen Firman, also known as Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–887 A.D.), made a jump in Cordoba, Spain, reportedly covering his body with vulture feathers and attaching two wings to his arms. Eilmer of Malmesbury soon followed and many others have continued to do so over the centuries. As late as 1811, Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and j
umped into the Danube at Ulm.
The kite may have been the first form of man-made aircraft. It was invented in China possibly as far back as the 5th century BC by Mozi (Mo Di) and Lu Ban (Gongshu Ban). Later designs often emulated flying insects, birds, and other beasts, both real and mythical. Some were fitted with strings and whistles to make musical sounds while flying. Ancient and medieval Chinese sources describe kites being used to measure distances, test the wind, lift men, signal, and communicate and send messages.
Kites spread from China around the world. After its introduction into India, the kite further evolved into the fighter kite, where an abrasive line is used to cut down other kites.
Man-carrying kites are believed to have been used extensively in ancient China, for both civil and military purposes and sometimes enforced as a punishment. An early recorded flight was that of the prisoner Yuan Huangtou, a Chinese prince, in the 6th Century AD. Stories of man-carrying kites also occur in Japan, following the introduction of the kite from China around the seventh century AD. It is said that at one time there was a Japanese law against man-carrying kites.
The use of a rotor for vertical flight has existed since 400 BC in the form of the bamboo-copter, an ancient Chinese toy. The similar “moulinet à noix” (rotor on a nut) appeared in Europe in the 14th century AD.