The history of flying machines
Helps show flight did not evolve
Adapted from the author’s book Hallmarks of Design: evidence of purposeful design and beauty in nature.
The impossibility of the evolution of flight is highlighted by the history of aviation. Some of the main historical milestones of technology and aviation are set out in the table here. It shows that the first controlled flying machine was produced in 1902, over 150 years after the beginning of the development of sophisticated machinery.
This huge period of time was not due to any lack of desire to make a flying machine but to the great difficulty engineers had in working out how to design a machine that could fly in a controlled manner.
|Development of sophisticated machinery||1750–1800|
|Invention of aerofoil||1804|
|Development of ultra-light wing structures||1896|
|Invention of tail wing||1896|
|Invention of tail fin||1902|
|Invention of tail rudder||1902|
|First controlled gliding||1902|
|First controlled powered aeroplane||1903|
|First controlled powered helicopter||1907|
Even though many sophisticated machines and engines were developed in the Industrial Revolution between 1750 and 1800, there was very little progress in the development of man-made flying machines during this time. When the aerofoil wing was discovered in 1804, some people thought that it would not take long at all to produce a flying machine, because wings are the most obvious parts that are necessary for flight. However, there was a huge gap of 98 years before the first controlled glide was achieved in 1902.
The length of time it took to develop flight is remarkable, considering how many talented scientists and engineers worked on the challenge.
The reason why it took so long to develop the first controlled flying machine after the discovery of the aerofoil is that flight also requires lightweight structures and flight control mechanisms. In addition, these mechanisms generally do not exist in non-flying machines, so engineers had to develop them from scratch.
During the nineteenth century, engineers had to use great creativity and foresight to design novel lightweight structures that were suitable for flight. Engineers also demonstrated great intellectual skill in understanding the mechanics of flight and designing the necessary control mechanisms for a flying machine. Control of flight is very difficult, because a flying machine is completely unrestrained in the air. So, there must be controls for producing the right orientation of the aircraft in all three axes of pitch, roll, and yaw (above). In the case of a car, it is only necessary to control the direction of the car on the road (the yaw angle). However, in the case of an aircraft, it can roll from side to side and it can pitch up and down. An additional challenge with flight is that it is necessary to fly within certain limits of speed and orientation in order to maintain stability.
In 1902 the Wright brothers made some famous inventions which enabled the successful development of the first properly controlled glider. Previous developers had designed light wing structures and produced elevation control by hinged panels. However, no one had properly understood the problems of banking due to the different drag forces on the two wings. When the Wright brothers studied this problem, they set about designing a device to counteract this difference in drag. The device which they invented was the tail-fin rudder; this was found to be a very good solution for producing a stabilizing force during a turn. The tail-fin rudder is analogous to the tail feathers of a bird and it is likely that the Wright brothers realized that birds use their tail feathers for control. The invention of the tail-fin rudder enabled the Wright brothers to carry out the first successful glide in 1902.
In 1903 the Wright brothers went further when they produced the first controlled powered aircraft called ‘The Flyer’. Some biology textbooks claim that compared with powered flight, controlled gliding is a much simpler form of flight, easier to achieve. But this is not so, as confirmed by the fact that following the discovery of the aerofoil, it took another 98 years to achieve the first controlled glide. Whereas after that, it took only one year more to attain the first powered flight.
The delicate nature of flight is demonstrated by the number of accidents that occurred during flight trials in the nineteenth century. The Hamlyn History of Aviation gives this account of a brave Frenchman who had a narrow escape:
“In 1857 Jean-Marie Le Bris built an elegant glider whose shape was based on the albatrosses he had seen … After the glider had again been launched downhill it once more carried Le Bris for a short distance through the air, but as he had no means of control he was unable to avoid a crash-landing in which he broke his leg.”1
This example illustrates the kinds of problem that land animals would experience if they attempted to experiment with flight. Experimenting with flight is a good way of becoming extinct, not of turning into a bird, bat, or pterosaur! Notice in the above quotation how the designer had tried to copy the design of the albatross. Even though engineers had the example of flying birds, it still took man a long time to work out how to design flying machines.
If the theory of evolution were true and it were possible to evolve flight by incremental steps, it should have been possible for engineers to get a land vehicle, such as a steam train, and evolve it step by step for flight. However, such a proposal is absurd because there is a fantastic difference between a land vehicle and an aircraft. In the same way, it is absurd to propose that a land-based creature gradually evolved into a flying creature.
Considering the complexities of flight, it is really no surprise that it took over a century and a half after the development of the first machines in the Industrial Revolution to develop the first controlled flying machine. That it took so long, despite the application of much intelligence and engineering skill, is a powerful indication that flight could not have evolved by progressive selection of a series of random accidents.
References and notes
- Baldry, D., (ed.), The Hamlyn History of Aviation, Hamlyn, London, p. 14, 1996. Return to text.