Who Were Wilbur and Orville?
1889 1900 1901 1902 1903 1904 1905
Forefathers of Flight
Forefathers of Flight
Much of what Wilbur and Orville accomplished was highly original. However, the findings of several key 19th-century experimenters provided useful pieces to the puzzle and saved the Wrights from pursuing many unfruitful avenues of research.
Portrait of Sir George Cayley (1773–1857)
Sir George Cayley

Sir George Cayley, 1773–1857
The career of Englishman Sir George Cayley marked a turning point in the history of aviation. Cayley was the first to mount a well-conceived, systematic program of aeronautical research grounded in the scientific method. He conducted practical experiments in aerodynamics, published his findings in scientific journals, and performed flight tests with models and full-size gliders.
Artifact Gallery
Cayley's Disc
Cayley's Disc illustrates his early conception of flight in 1799
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Cayley full-size aircraft, the Boy-Carrier, 1849.
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“[Lilienthal] was without question the greatest of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt."
Wilbur Wright September 1912
Otto Lilienthal Gliding
The flying man
Lilienthal had a great psychological impact on aviation. Nicknamed “The Flying Man,” he was pictured soaring gracefully over hillsides in photos in newspapers and magazines the world over. Lilienthal’s fame and this visible proof that a human could fly inspired other experimenters.
Portrait of Otto Lilienthal (1848–1896)
Otto Lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal,1848–1896
The most influential glider pioneer was Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer who began his aeronautical research in 1871 by studying bird flight. After nearly two decades of imaginative experimentation and research, he produced the best and most complete body of aerodynamic data up to that time. He published his results in Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation) in 1889.
Lilienthal gliders
Following his program of data collection, Lilienthal constructed and tested a series of elegant, full-size gliders. Between 1891 and 1896 he made nearly 2,000 brief flights in 16 different glider designs based on his aerodynamic research.
An abrupt and tragic end
On August 9, 1896, while flying one of his monoplane gliders, Lilienthal stalled and crashed. He died from his injuries the following day. The Wright brothers later cited his death as the point when their serious interest in flight research began.
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