We Wouldn’t Have Planes Without Birds

If need is the mother of all invention, how do we explain airplanes? Humans have wanted to fly since the moment we first noticed birds. Jealous and unsatisfied with our opposable-thumb-enabled dominance, we set our minds on figuring out how to get into the air. Not really a need there but now we live in a world that seems to need flight. It was planes then bomber planes then spaceships then drones then whatever the next frontier in flight will be.

And so we look to the story of the Wright Brothers, significant players in the history of flight and arguably the most famous. They built their own printing press and ran a weekly newspaper. Following this, they rode a national bicycle craze and started selling and repairing bicycles, eventually manufacturing their own.

By 1896, people were more interested in flight.

Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, Percy Pilcher, and Octave Chanute all played roles in this terrestrial space race. Lilienthal plunged to his death in a homemade glider. Pilcher died in a hang gliding crash. Most of the wannabe-pilots of the day thought the solution to flying was found in big fat engines with big fat wings but the Wright Brothers, noticing all these deaths, knew the key was in pilot control. They even used their experience with bicycles to figure out the best way for planes to turn.

The rest of their story was turbulent, as the headings of their Wikipedia page reveals. European skepticism, patent war, competing claims, rivalry. None of this really matters as much as December 17, 1903, the date of their four brief flights at Kitty Hawk and the official start date of the first successful airplane.

I’m not as grateful for airplanes since I really dislike flying but there’s no denying how big of a role flight plays in the modern world. The path of the Wright Brothers, from newspapers to bicycles to planes, started with a toy helicopter their father bought them when they were kids. They played with it until it broke and then they built their own. Their first experience building a flying machine.

I think about how one thing leads to another. I think about the broken toy helicopter and the tinkerers who fixed it. I think about how the humble bird helped us conceive of flight in the first place.

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