Who invented the airplane? Why?

Did the Wright Brothers Really Invent the Airplane?

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, America won the most medals with a total of 121 medals (46 gold). Great Britain followed with a total of 67 medals (27 gold) and China in a respectable third with 70 total medals (26 gold).

Amid these record performances, the Rio Olympics also sparked some other historical controversy: During the opening ceremony, Brazil paid homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont, the man to whom the country believes it owes the invention of the airplane.

So who invented the airplane?

If you ask an American, the general answer will be: The Wright Brothers.

This is a relatively undisputed fact. Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first controlled, sustainable flight of a motorized airplane on December 17, 1903, just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Historically, they took over the rule of the inventors of the airplane ... but apparently not everyone believes that.

So if you ask the Brazilians who founded modern aviation, they will tell a very different story.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian aviation pioneer who was born on July 20, 1873. He spent most of his adult life in Paris, France, where he devoted himself to studying and experimenting with aviation. He designed, built, and flew hot air balloons and early drigibles (airships) before pioneering aircraft. His first fixed-wing aircraft was a canard biplane called the 14-bis.

On October 23, 1906, Santos-Dumont flew the 14-bis, which was approved by the Aro Club de France and the Fdration Aronautique Internationale (FAI). The aircraft flew 197 feet at an altitude of about 16 feet. It received the Deutsch-Archdiakon-Preis for the first officially observed flight from a height of more than 25 meters.

But obviously the Wright brothers had flown as early as 1906. In fact, Orville and Wilbur had flown their Wright Flyer III for over half an hour by then.


One claim is that the Wrights had no witnesses to their early accomplishments because it was not a public event. Because of this, they struggled to establish their legitimacy, especially in Europe where some took an anti-Wright stance. In contrast, Santos-Dumont's flight was the world's first public flight, which is why he was hailed as the inventor of the airplane over Europe.

Ernest Archdeacon, the founder of the Aéro-Club de France, publicly despised the brothers' claims despite the reports published. Archdeacon wrote several articles, including a 1906 statement stating that "the French would make the first public demonstration of powered flight". In 1908, Archdeacon publicly admitted wronging the Wrights after they flew in France.

Define an airplane

Henrique Lins de Barros (a Brazilian physicist and Santos Dumont expert) has argued that the Wrights did not meet the conditions established at the time to distinguish a real flight from an extended jump; Santos-Dumont, on the other hand, took off without help, flew publicly a predetermined length in front of experts and then landed safely.

The Brazilians do not recognize the legitimacy of the Wright brothers' flight because they claim that the Wright plane took off from a rail and later launched with a catapult (or at least with a bevel to take-off). However, the 2003 CNN report of these claims reveals that even the Santos-Dumont experts believe this is incorrect, although Lins de Barros believes that “the strong, steady winds at Kitty Hawk were critical to the Flyer's launch disqualified the flight because there was no evidence that it could take off on its own ”.

Peter Jakab, chairman of the aviation department of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and an expert from the Wright brothers, on the other hand, considers such claims, such as those made by Lins de Barros, to be absurd: "Even in 1903, the plane stayed in the air for almost a minute. If it doesn't hold up on its own, it won't stay up that long“.

Competing claims

At the beginning of the 20th century it was a race to get the first powered airplane into the air.

Every aspiring aviator wanted credit for inventing the first powered airplane heavier than air (let's not forget that there were other experimental planes and early flying machines), and Alberto Santos-Dumont is not the only aviator who does first successful powered flight (outside the Wright brothers).

The more important claims include the following pilots:

  • Clement Ader in the Avion III (1897)
  • Gustave Whitehead in his Airplanes No. 21 and 22 (1901-1903)
  • Richard Pearse in his monoplane (1903-1904)
  • Samuel Pierpont Langley's Aerodome A (1903)
  • Karl Jatho in the Jatho biplane (1903)

Ader's claim was invalidated by 1910. Pearse himself did not claim the feat of the first powered flight, Langley’s Aerodome failed in both attempts. In Germany, some credit Jatho with the first flight by airplane, although there are various sources that say his airplane was piloted.

Gustave Whitehead

Of all the aviators who claim to have flown in powered airplanes before the Wright brothers, perhaps the most controversial is Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead's claims weren't taken seriously until 1935 when two journalists wrote an article for Popular Aviation. In 1963, the reserve major of the U.S. Air Force, William O’Dwyer, about Whitehead, and because he believed he was actually flying; his research contributed to Stella Randolph's 1966 book The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew.

On March 8, 2013, Paul Jackson published an editorial confirming Whitehead's claim that Jane was the only airplane in the world. On June 11, 2013, Scientific American published a rebuttal of the Whitehead claims, and on October 24, 38 aviation historians and journalists denied the claims and issued a statement on Gustave Whitehead's flight claims.

We may never really know who really and truly invented the first airplane, but much of the evidence (and general consensus) supports the Wright brothers. But it's hard to tell. Unfortunately, authentication doesn't always happen immediately after the invention (especially when we're talking about history).

It's hard to say that inventions and recognition should only go to those who seek the public eye and have flawless documentation, but how can authenticity be determined without them? Perhaps the "who" wouldn't be such a big deal if the airplane weren't such a technological achievement, an achievement that has only gained in global importance. After all, we don't even know who invented the wheel ...

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