Mythology      Kites      Balloons      Airships      Gliders and Aerodromes

Even before the Wright brother's first successful flight in 1903, humans took to the sky. 

The desire to fly is both ancient and universal. It is an essential element in our oldest stories of gods and heroes in cultures around the world. Born from our envy of birds, flight came to symbolize the human desire to soar over the obstacles and taste the freedom of the sky.  

Flight in Culture and Mythology

From humankind’s earliest days, we placed gods in the sky and exiled demons to dark places under the Earth. Flying gods and winged creatures fill the religion, mythology, and literature of cultures around the globe.

Stories of people who tempted fate by imitating birds and trespassing in the world of gods have been a staple element in myth and literature for centuries.

Icarus and Daedalus

The story of Icarus and Daedalus symbolizes the wonder danger of flight. Daedalus, a brilliant engineer, builds wings of wax and feathers for his son Icarus. The boy ignores his father’s advice and flied too close to the sun. This melts the wax, cause him to fall to his death.

Pictured: An etching by artist Annibale Carracci of a scene from the classical myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Gift of the Norfolk Charitable Trust.

The Man in the Moon

Francis Godwin, a 17th century British bishop, wrote a novel about a man carried to the moon by migrating birds. The Man in the Moone was published in 1638, five years after Godwin's death. It is believed by many to be the first science fiction story published in the English language. In this scene to depicted here, Godwin's protagonist, Domingo Gonsales, rises from atop El Pico, Teneriffe, Canary Islands. He uses a contraption powered by ten "gansas" (resembling swans or geese, but having one webbed foot and one foot with talons like an eagle). Gonsales is ultimately carried to the Moon, where he has further adventures.


You might remember flying kites on a windy day as a kid with your friends—the feeling of holding on to the string as the kite flew about the sky perhaps made you feel like you, too, might take off. More than just a children's toy, many people enjoy flying kites into their adulthood. Kites were invented in China in the fifth century BCE. They were the first objects conceived and crafted by humans to achieve sustained flight. Nineteenth century experimenters used kites to test ideas about aerodynamics, structures, and flight controls.  

Box Kite

Australian Lawrence Hargrave (1850–1915) conducted important aeronautical experiments and produced a number of flying models. Invented by Hargrave in 1893, the box kite played a key role in the development of the airplane. It inspired the twin wings of a biplane—solidly braced with wires and struts. 

This Box Kite, sometimes called a Marvin Kite, was used by U.S. Weather Bureau in the 1930s to study the atmosphere and weather. In this photo, it hangs on exhibit in the Aircraft Building, National Air Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1933.

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Balloons first floated people up into the sky in 1783. Two French brothers named Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated the first hot-air balloon flight with no passengers, followed by flights carrying animals, and, finally, a tethered flight with humans aboard. The first free flight with human passengers took place on November 21, 1783.

Among those in Paris to witness some of these first balloon ascensions were Benjamin Franklin, the members of the John Jay and John Adams families, including 16-year-old John Quincy Adams, and a surgeon friend of Franklin’s, John Foulke.

Read about U.S. Presidents' connection to ballooning
Ask an Expert Early Ballooning Art and Culture

Senior curator emeritus Tom Crouch gives a tour of early balloon aviation art and culture in the "Clouds in a Bag: The Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection" exhibition at our Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Look at this imaginary self-contained balloon community.

It was supposed to have everything people would need to live in the air.

Look for these items: 

  • Large barrel – what could you store in here? 
  • Cannon – how might you use this? 
  • Long telescope – where would you look? 
  • White house – who might live here? 
  • Church – a church in the sky? 
  • Anchor – how would this work? 

Evelyn Way Kendall was a prolific collector of balloon-themed objects, and had perhaps the largest collection of such items in the nation. But what inspired her to amass such a collection? 

Read Kendall's story

Ballooning During the Civil War

The Most Fashionable Balloon of the Civil War

Although the collection of the National Air and Space Museum contains some of the best air and space craft, it also has one of the best collections of artifacts from the often forgotten days of ballooning. Before humans were able to fly into the heavens on wings or rockets, they first rose off the ground in balloons, often tethered to prevent complete flight. One object from this collection, however, stands out for its peculiar place in American military history. 

Read story

Symposium: Ballooning in the Civil War

Watch Dr. Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator emeritus with the National Air and Space Museum, as he speaks to a panel of authorities on Civil War ballooning, including: Mike Boehme, director, Virginia Aviation Museum; Dr. James Green, NASA; and Thomas Hilt at the National Air and Space Museum.

Watch video

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Woodcut by Perot depicting left side view of Henri Giffard steam-powered airship of 1852 in flight.


Airships offered the first way to navigate in the air. These powered, lighter-than-air craft can be controlled, unlike balloons that go wherever the wind blows. For a time, airships were considered a serious rival to the new airplanes.

Engineer Henri Giffard piloted the first powered, controlled flight of an airship on September 24, 1852. His steam-powered airship flew 17 miles (27 kilometers) from Paris to Élancourt, France. Several decades would pass before an airship could navigate in even a light wind.

Alberto Santos-Dumont

Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932), the son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee farmer, arrived in Paris in 1897 to study engineering. Fascinated by flight, he made headlines piloting a series of small powered airships around Paris, becoming one of the Air Age’s first true celebrities. At just over five feet tall and over 110 pounds, impeccably dressed and groomed, Santos-Dumont became the image of the fashionable man about town. He was so determined to show his friends how great it was to fly, that he hung his dining room table and chairs from the ceiling, so that his guests could dine in the air. 

Object Highlight Clement V-2 Engine

This Clement V-2 engine powered the Santos-Dumont Airship No.9 in 1903. Although designed for a motorcycle, the engine’s light weight and ample power made it well suited to propel the airship. The V-2 also powered a belt-driven blower that pressurized a separate air bag in the airship’s hydrogen-filled envelope. Santos-Dumont brought the No.9, which was his smallest airship, to the U.S. to compete the at 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It was damaged during shipping, which Santos-Dumont thought was sabotage, so he refused to fly during his visit to the U.S. 

View Clement engine record
The hydrogen gas that lifted rigid airships was housed in large bags inside an aluminum framework. 

The Zeppelin

Santos-Dumont's airships were too small to carry passengers or cargo. Efforts to develop larger, buoyant craft to meet commercial and military needs were underway in the early 1900s. Count Ferdinand von Zepplin led the way with his rigid airships. 

Santos-Dumont flew pressure airships, in which the airship kept it shape because the pressure of the gas inside was slightly higher than that of the air. When not inflated, the envelope was simply an empty bag. In rigid airships, the gas was contained in separate bags inside a rigid frame that gave the aircraft its shape. Rigid airships are much larger than pressure airships and can carry many more passengers and heavier freight.

Gliders and Aerodromes 

Throughout the 1800s, most people still thought powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft was impossible. But inspired by the work of innovators such as George Cayley, William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow, two generations of engineers started working after 1860 to prove people wrong. They did ground-based experiments with new tools like the wind tunnel, then used what they learned to design large flying models and full-scale gliders. 

A design for a human-powered flying machine developed by Sir George Cayley in 1853. 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.

The First Aeronautical Engineer

Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) built the world’s first hand-launched glider in 1804. It was five feet long and was the first example of the configuration of a modern aircraft, with separate systems for lift and control.  

Cayley deserves to be remembered as the first aeronautical engineer. He was the first to conceive of a flying machine as a fixed-wing craft with separate systems for lift, propulsion, and control. He did tests with the best engineering instruments available and published his findings, which helped later experimenters.

View a Model of Cayley's 1804 Gilder
Object Highlight Stringfellow Steam Engine

This small steam engine is the oldest surviving aeronautical engine. John Stringfellow (1799-1883) won the first prize for best power-to-weight ratio at an Aeronautical Society of Great Britain exhibition in 1868. With the strength of one horsepower for its 13-pound (6-kilogram) weight, it was judged the lightest engine in proportion to its power.  

Inspired by George Cayley, Stringfellow and fellow experimenter William Samuel Henson (1812-1888), hoped to develop their Aerial Steam Carriage to create air routes linking the far corners of the British Empire.  

View Stringfellow engine record

Langley's Aerodromes

Samuel P. Langley (1834-1906) was a self-trained astronomer, and became Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1887. After a series of experiments convinced him that mechanical flight was possible, he tested a series of models powered by twisted strands of rubber before moving on to tests with lightweight steam engines. In 1891, he began work on a series of large steam-powered model aircraft called Aerodromes. In 1896, under Langley, the Smithsonian crew successfully launched two model Aerodromes on flights of more than one-half mile.

More About Langley
The remains of the 1903 Langley Aerodrome float in the Potomac River following the first unsuccessful attempt to fly, October 7, 1903.
Object Highlight Langley Aerodrome No. 5

Aerodrome No.5, a 25-pound (11.4 kg) steam-powered model with a wingspan of 13ft 9in (4.2 meters), was twice catapulted into the air from the roof of a small houseboat on the Potomac River on May 6, 1896. On the first flight it traveled 3,300 feet (1,005 meters). The second time it covered 2,300 feet (700 meters) at a speed of about 25 mph (40 km/h). The flights represent the first time that a powered, heavier-than-air machine of significant size has completed a sustained flight. Langley eventually produced the Great Aerodrome, a full-scale, human-carrying version of his models. Both attempts in 1903 to launch it from the roof of the houseboat ended in watery crashes. The Great Aerodrome proved incapable of flight.  

View Langley aerodrome record

Innovators in Gliding

Octave Chanute (1832–1910)

Chanute was one of the most important figures in world aeronautics from 1880 to 1910. As a civil engineer, student of flight theory, and promoter of active gliding, Chanute set the stage for the success of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Chanute became interested in flight after noticing the impact of high winds on bridges and roofs. He corresponded with aeronautical experimenters around the world and published a book of his articles, Progress in Flying Machines (1894), which had an important influence on the Wright brothers.

John J. Montgomery (1858-1911) 

In 1884, Californian John J. Montgomery became one of the first Americans to build and fly a glider that could carry a human. After limited success with several gliders, he unveiled his tandem wing Santa Clara gliders in 1904 and 1905. Launched from hot air balloons, he abandoned the design after one pilot died and another was injured in crashes. Montgomery died in 1911 in a crash of the last glider he designed. 

The Chanute Gliders

In 1896, Chanute and a group of young assistants tested a series of full-scale gliders on Lake Michigan’s sand dunes. One glider—the Chanute Herring two-surface machine—was the most advanced of all pre-Wright designs. Chanute gave the models of his gliders (pictured below) to the Smithsonian in 1909. 

In this photo, Augustus Moore Herring prepares to launch himself in his 1897 version of Octave Chanute's biplane glider. The lower wing is supported by an unidentified man, most likely William Avery, and the proceedings are observed by Augustus Herring's dogs Rags and Tatters on the Indiana Dunes in 1897. It had a biplane wing layout, vertical struts, and bracing wires.  As with Lilienthal's glider, the pilot controlled the craft by shifting his body weight.

Model, Static, Chanute Bi-plane Gliding Machine, 1896 Object Model, Static, Chanute Multiple Wing Gliding Machine, 1896 Object
In this 1894 photo, Otto Lillenthal glides through the air. Known as the "flying man," the German aeronautical pioneer died following a glider crash in August 1896

Otto Lilienthal (1848–1896)

Lilienthal was the most important aviation pioneer between Sir George Cayley and the Wright brothers. He began tests on aerodynamic forces in 1867, and in 1889 he published results that would serve as the foundation for later experimenters. Then he designed, built, and tested the first of 16 glider types. Lilienthal completed as many as 2,000 glides in five years before he died in a crash in August 1896. 

“Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important.”
-Wilbur Wright

Object Highlight Lilienthal Standard Glider, 1894

This is the only original Lilienthal glider in the Western Hemisphere. Lilienthal considered it the most successful of his designs. The pilot controlled the glider by shifting his weight. Lilienthal made glides of over 900 feet (274 meters) in this model. Photographs of Lilienthal in the air established him as an internationally known figure. Known as “the Flying Man,” he appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world between 1890 and 1896. He inspired other flying machine experimenters, including the Wright brothers, who used Lilienthal’s aerodynamic information as their starting point.  

American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst bought this glider from Otto Lilienthal in 1896 and had it flight-tested on the lawn of an estate. It was given to the Smithsonian in February 1906 after appearing at a New York Aero Club show.

View Lilienthal glider record
The First Heavier-Than-Air Powered Flight 

Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville Wright (1871–1948) designed, built, and tested seven flying machines: one kite (1899), three gliders (1900–1902), and three powered flying machines (1903–1905). The brothers made the world's first powered, controlled, and sustained flights in an airplane on December 17, 1903. 

About the Wright brothers