The Dream of Flight: A Library of Congress Special Presentation Commemorating the Centennial of Flight
Sections: The Dream | The Achievement | Timeline of Flight
One of the first flights over water

On a November night in Paris in 1908, Wilbur Wright addressed a group of French aviation enthusiasts gathered to honor him and his brother, Orville, saying that this honor was really a tribute to "an idea that has always impassioned mankind." With these words, Wilbur Wright recognized what might be called the universal aspiration to fly. This desire to elevate oneself above one's environment—to conquer the ocean of air—can be seen as a perennial struggle evident in nearly every civilization from classical times to the early twentieth century. As Wilbur spoke that night in his typically understated style, he seemed to suggaest that, instead of achieving this age-old dream of mankind, he and Orville had been merely participants in an ancient and ongoing human struggle.

Myth and Religion

From the beginning of recorded history, the theme of flight can be found in myth and legend, as well as in art, literature, and organized religion. Almost every culture has its own version of winged angels and devils, horses and dragons, as well as flying carpets and chariots. The world's folklore is replete with stories of soaring gods and flying heroes who, unlike humans, are able to navigate what Wilbur called "the infinite highway of the air."

The exhibition begins with the classic flying myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and uses rare books, prints, and manuscripts to look at the idea of flight through ancient times. The exhibition brings to light a strikingly symbolic uniformity—that the idea of flight suggests freedom and connotes supernatural power in most cultures.

Chariot of Fire

One of the best known biblical stories of flight is the ascension of the Hebrew prophet Elijah, who was picked up by a chariot and horses of fire and "went up by a whirlwind into heaven." The symbol of a fiery chariot that does not burn its occupant recalls the Greek myth of Helios. Elijah is not only an important figure in the Jewish faith but is revered by Christians and Muslims. In this story, flying can be said to represent the idea of the afterlife or even reincarnation.

[Elijah in the flying chariot] in Biblia. Dordrecht: H. Keuer, 1702. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1)

Burmese Winged Creature

This accordian book contains patterns for amulets and protective tattoos. Mantras or spells encircle each of the images pictured. The upper image is a half-human, half-bird creature and is known as a "Kinnara." This mythical beast was originally an Indian creation thought to inhabit the Himalayas. The legend spread to the countries of southeast Asia, including Burma. The lower image is a three-headed peacock.

Manuscript of talismans and tattoos from Burma. Nineteenth century. Steatite chalk on black paper. Asian Division, Library of Congress (2)

Wings of Wax

The Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus is the classic legend of aeronautics. The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-?17 A.D.) told of the imprisoned architect and sculptor, Daedalus, who fashioned wings of wax, feathers, and twine to escape King Minos of Crete. Daedalus successfully flew to safety, but his son, Icarus, plunged to his death, having flown too near the sun. In this moral tale, Daedalus is the creative artist, "the cunning artificer," but Icarus, having been "ravisht with desire of heaven," is destroyed by excessive pride in his powers.

Icarus at merito, cum petat alta, cadit, seventeenth century. Etching with engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (5.1)

Mercury—the Winged God

Mercury, the Roman god of merchants, is usually depicted wearing winged sandals and a winged cap. This woodcut showing Mercury in the clouds was created by the German painter and engraver Hans Brosamer (ca. 1500–1554) and is derived from a drawing by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). By the eighth century B.C., the belief that Greek gods possessed the power of flight and could span both time and distance at will was well established. The power of flight was considered the domain of the immortals.

Petrus Apianus. Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetvstatis. Ingolstadt: Petrus Apianus, 1534. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (6)

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Winged Creatures

"The Spirit's Flight"

Taken sometime between 1854 and 1860 during the first generation of photography, this daguerreotype shows a small marble work by the celebrated American sculptor, Erastus Dow Palmer (1817–1904). In his bas-relief sculpture titled "The Spirit's Flight," Palmer captures the traditional notion that winged beings are ethereal, and that flight is a non-human attribute.

"E.D.Palmer's The Spirit's Flight," 1854–1860. Daguerreotype. Gift of Henry K. Bush-Brown. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (7)

Winged Victory

The winged figure of Victory, standing behind the mother holding a child with an olive branch, harkens back to the Nike, who served as an angel or messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. Nike came to personify victory and was usually depicted as a powerful and majestic woman with beautiful wings. This poster was printed during World War I to encourage French citizens to buy war bonds. The bottom right inscription urges, "Subscribe to hasten peace through victory."

Paul Albert Besnar. Souscrivez pour Hâter la Paix par la Victoire. 3e Emprunt de la Défense Nationale. Paris : Maquet Gr., 1917. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9)

Winged Horse

This winged horse employed by the Soviet Union in 1920 to encourage mass education with the slogan, "Literacy—the Path to Communism" is a variation of Pegasus. The torch-bearing young man holding an open book and riding a powerful steed soaring high above the city is an image designed to inspire. Linking communist ideology to the winged, immortal horse of Greek mythology aligns that political doctrine with an easily understandable and very potent idea—that to fly is to dominate, to conquer.

Gramota—put' k kommunizmu (Literacy—the Path to Communism). USSR, 1920. Photo-mechanical print with halftone color. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (10)

Flying Carpets

The image of a person traveling on a flying carpet to an adventure became part of Western folklore after the first European translations of The Thousand and One Nights, a compilation of stories derived from Persian, Arabic, and Indian sources. Here, the renowned illustrator and author, Marcia Brown (b. 1918) retells one of the best-known folktales. References to magic or flying carpets are found in each the Egyptian and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as in the Hindu epic poem, Samarangana Sutradhara.

Marcia Brown. The Flying Carpet. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (11) The Library of Congress does not have permission to display this object online.

Dante's Sun Chariot

In Dante's Inferno, the author rides into the circles of Hell and likens his journey to that of Phaeton, the mortal son of the Greek god Helios, who drove the chariot of the Sun across the sky every day. When Helios agreed to let his son take the reins, the horses proved too much for Phaeton to control. The chariot came too close to earth, scorching everything in its path. Realizing that the world was in danger, the god Zeus killed Phaeton. In Dante's view, Phaeton suffered the consequences of attempting to surpass human limits.

[Phaeton in Chariot] in Dante Alighieri. La Commedia. Venice: Petrus de Plasis, 1491. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (12)

Winged Venus

Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, is depicted in this late fifteenth-century book as having wings. Although rarely portrayed as winged, as a daughter of Jupiter, Venus was a powerful goddess and therefore capable of flight. This image was one of more than 100 woodcuts carved by the young Albrecht Dürer to illustrate human vices and follies for the moralistic poem, called Das Narrenschiff or The Ship of Fools, written by the German humanist Sebastian Brant (1457–1521).

Albrecht Dürer. [Winged Venus] in Sebastian Brant. Das Narrenschiff. Basel: Johann Bergmann, de Olpe, 1494. Woodcut. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (13.1)

Winged Time

On these pages, the English poet and illustrator, William Blake, depicts the personification of "Time" as having wings. On the left page, Time has his traditional scythe and conceals his wings as he creeps stealthily toward the viewer. On the right, Time has passed us, unfurling his wings as he goes on about his endless journey. Blake uses powerful imagery to interpret the words of the poet Edward Young, whose poem has been described as a Christian apologetic inspired by the deaths of Young's wife, step-daughter, and son-in-law.

William Blake. [Winged Time] in Edward Young. The Complaint, and the Consolation, or, Night Thoughts. London: R. Noble for R. Edwards, 1797. Hand-colored engraving. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (21)

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Early Science

From the beginning of recorded history, the theme of flight can be found in myth and legend, as well as in art, literature, and organized religion. Almost every culture has its own version of winged angels and devils, horses and dragons, as well as flying carpets and chariots. The world's folklore is replete with stories of soaring gods and flying heroes who, unlike humans, are able to navigate what Wilbur called "the infinite highway of the air."

The exhibition begins with the classic flying myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and uses rare books, prints, and manuscripts to look at the idea of flight through ancient times. The exhibition brings to light a strikingly symbolic uniformity—that the idea of flight suggests freedom and connotes supernatural power in most cultures.


Da Vinci's Flying Machines

Among the nearly 5,000 pages of notes made by the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) are designs for flying machines. They include a pyramidal parachute, a model helicopter, and several flapping-wing devices. The latter were inspired by da Vinci's long study of birds. Although his work should mark him as a pioneer of flight, Leonardo left his manuscripts to a friend who never made them public. Only in the late nineteenth century did the world begin to appreciate his scientific approach to aeronautics.

I Manoscritti di Leonardo da Vinci Sul Volo degli Uccelli e Varie Altre Materie. Paris: E. Rouveyre, 1893. Facsimile folio. General Collections, Library of Congress (22.1)

Eighteenth-Century Science Fiction

In this book, a strange machine brings a visitor to earth from the planet Mercury. This fictional flying contraption is said to be powered by static electricity, produced when its two glass globes are rubbed with camphor covered with gold leaf as they turn on a platform. The powerful light changed the pressure of the air and enabled the alien operator to navigate. La Follie's electric motor is probably based on the fricitional machines of his time, which generated small electrical charges.

Louis Guillaume de La Follie. La philosophe sans pretention. Paris: Clousier, 1775. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (19)

Lighter-Than-Air Vehicle

More than a century before the Montgolfiers' successful demonstration of the hot-air balloon, Francesco Lana Terzi (1631-1687), a priest and professor of mathematics in Ferrara, Italy, advanced the concept of a lighter-than-air vehicle. Based on earlier studies of atmospheric pressure and vacuum, Lana Terzi describes an airship that would be raised by four spheres of wafer-thin copper from which the air had been evacuated. Although an impractical idea, it contained at least a germ of scientific truth.

Francesco Lana Terzi. Prodromo: Overo, Saggio di alcune inventioni nuove premesso all'Arte maestra. Brescia: Rizzardi, 1670. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (24)

Animals in Test Flight

To see if the upper atmosphere would sustain life, on September 19, 1783, Joseph (1740-1810) and Etienne (1745-1799) Montgolfier sent aloft a rooster, a sheep, and a duck in a balloon they designed. Released at Versailles before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the hot-air balloon soared to about 1,700 feet before landing safely two miles away with all aboard still alive. One of the first to reach the cage was Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who would become the first man to fly, and later to die, in a balloon.

Exp[é]rience a[ë]rostatique faite Versailles le 19 sept. 1783. Hand-colored etching, 1783. Tissandier Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (29)

Hot Air Balloons

The attempt to conquer nature through science led to a growing body of both serious and imaginative literature regarding flight, setting the stage for the first successful aeronautical idea—the concept of lighter-than-air flight. The display briefly reviews the history of balloons culminating in the Montgolfier brothers’ successful manned ascent at Versailles in 1783, witnessed by Benjamin Franklin. The dream was still only partially realized since, as Benjamin Franklin presciently remarked, these great bags of gas and their airship successors “must always be subject to be driven by the Winds . . . .” In short, balloons could rise, but horizontal flight was not in their control.


The Montgolfier Brothers' Hot-Air Balloon

The first manned balloon flight, in a Montgolfier designed hot-air balloon on November 21, 1783, lasted twenty-five minutes and landed about five-and-one-half miles from the Paris site where it started. The volunteer "aeronauts" were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (1757–1785) and the Marquis d'Arlandes (1742–1809). Benjamin Franklin was among the spectators. In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London, Franklin presciently observes the lack of navigational control, saying, "These Machines must always . . . be driven by the Winds. Perhaps Mechanic Art may find easy means to give them progressive Motion."

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Charles's and Robert's Hydrogen Balloon

Less than two weeks after the ground-breaking Montgolfier flight, the French physicist Jacques Alexandre César Charles (1746–1823) and M.N. Robert (1758–1820) made the first untethered ascension with a gas (hydrogen) balloon. Charles combined his expertise in making hydrogen with Robert's new method of coating silk with rubber. The "Charlière" exceeded the earlier Montgolfier hot-air balloon in time in the air and distance traveled. With its wicker gondola, netting, and valve-and-ballast system, it became the definitive form of the hydrogen balloon for the next 200 years. The throng in the Tuileries Gardens was reported as 400,000—half the population of Paris.

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First Aeronautical Fatalities

This engraving commemorates the tragic deaths on June 15, 1785 of Pierre Romain and Jean-François de Rozier, who was both the first to fly and to die in a balloon. Using a dangerous combination of hot-air and hydrogen proved fatal to the pair, whose dramatic crash before a large crowd only temporarily dampened the balloon mania sweeping France in the late eighteenth century. The album shows a tiny swatch from the ill-fated balloon as part of a collection of "echantillons" or sample pieces of fabric collected by the nineteenth-century balloonists and aeronautical historians, Albert (1836–1906) and Gaston (1843–1899) Tissandier.

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First Parachute Descent

The first successful parachute descent from a balloon was made by Frenchman André Jacques Garnerin (1770–1823) in Paris on October 22, 1797. When opened, the parachute resembled a huge umbrella about thirty feet in diameter. It was made of canvas and was attached to a hydrogen balloon, shown streaming away at the left in this copy of a well-known painting by Etienne Chevalier de Lorimier. After being released at 3,000 feet, the parachute swung violently side-to-side because the canvas could not "spill the wind," allowing air to pass through it.

Premier descent en parachute, 1797. Gouache and watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (107)

Blanchard's Hydrogen Balloon

Little more than three months after the first manned balloon flight, Jean Pierre Blanchard (1753–1809) designed a hydrogen balloon with flapping devices to control its flight. The bold, self-promoting Blanchard soon moved to England, where he became the darling of a small group of enthusiasts, including Boston physician, John Jeffries. Jeffries offered to pay for what became the first flight across the English Channel. Here the pair approaches France on January 7, 1785. Jeffries later wrote that they sank so low that they threw everything overboard including most of their clothing, arriving safely on land "almost naked as the trees."

Aerial Steam Carriage

In this fanciful view published in 1843, the "Aerial" flies over the Egyptian pyramids and looks surprisingly like an early twentieth-century monoplane. Conceived and designed by William Samuel Henson, this design looks as if it actually could have flown. Although unable to fly for various technical reasons, it can be considered the first rational expression of a powered, heavier-than-air machine. Henson is also credited with introducing the modern notion of the pusher propeller.

W. Walton, printer. The First Carrieage, the “Ariel.” London: Ackerman & Co., 1843. Hand-colored lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (110)

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Lighter Than Air

Balloons Aloft

The Tissandier brothers were balloonists, who made many ascents and documented their travels in writing and illustrations. Gaston (1843–1899), a writer, and Albert (1839–1906), an illustrator, worked together to develop a design for an electric-powered airship in 1885. Albert made this drawing of their balloon called Zénith and the spectacular lunar halo and luminescent cross they observed on a March 1875 ascent.

Attributed to Albert Tissandier. [Lunar halo and luminescent cross observed during the balloon Zénith's long distance flight from Paris to Arcachon in March, 1875.] Drawing on blue paper: ink wash, lead white, and graphite. Tissandier Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. (115)

Balloon Collecting Cards

By the mid-nineteenth century, balloons were a common sight in Europe. They were especially popular in France because ballooning was thought to be born there. Therefore, it is not surprising that there existed a demand for commemorative cards in late-nineteenth-century France. This sheet of ten uncut cards, each individually captioned and numbered, shows color images of dramatic events in ballooning history from 1783 to 1846.

[Collecting cards with pictures of events in ballooning history from 1783 to 1846.] Paris: Romanet & cie., imp. Edit [between 1890 and 1900]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (116)

French Ballooning

This lithograph of a balloon in the colors of the French flag was signed by the French professional balloonist Jules Duruof on June 6, 1874—little more than a year after he and his wife were rescued at sea. When the mayor forbade his ascent because of threatening weather, the crowd questioned his courage. Saying, "Let us show then that we are not afraid to die," Duruof and his wife disappeared into the darkness above a stormy sea and were given up for lost. News of their rescue was cheered by all.

J. Duruof. Le tricolore. - Page 2. Paris: Imp. E. Hamelin rue Fontaine au roi 59, 1874. Lithograph. Landauer Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (117)

Achievements and Sacrifices

Realizing the dream of flight by achieving powered, sustained, and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine would prove difficult and costly. The exhibition briefly surveys those experimenters and achievers of the nineteenth century who paved the way for the Wrights. These included the English pioneer of aerodynamics, Sir George Cayley; the German gliding pioneer, Otto Lilienthal, who plunged to his death during an unsuccessful glide; and the French-American engineer, Octave Chanute. Their efforts culminated in the Wrights' successful flights on a wind-swept dune in North Carolina in 1903.

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Dirigibles and Gliders


On Aerial Navigation

During 1809 and 1810, the brilliant English engineer George Cayley (1773–1857) laid the foundation for what would be called "aeronautical engineering." Caley published several articles that mark the first steps toward heavier-than-air flight. He realized that the main problem for achieving flight lay in making "a surface support a given weight by the application of power to the resistance of air." In 1843, Cayley designed an "aerial carriage" that featured rotating blades that could be converted into fixed wings for forward flight.

"Sir George Cayley's Aerial Carriage," in Mechanics' Magazine, April 8, 1843. General Collections, Library of Congress (36)

First Dirigible

Early balloons were not truly navigable. Attempts to improve maneuverability included elongating the balloon's shape and using a powered screw to push it through the air. Thus the airship or dirigible—a lighter-than-air craft with propulsion and steering systems—was born. Credit for the construction of the first navigable airship belongs to French engineer, Henri Giffard, who, in 1852, attached a small, steam-powered engine to a huge propeller and chugged through the air for seventeen miles at a top speed of five miles per hour.

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The Problem of Manflight

Full-scale gliding began with Otto Lilienthal, whose daring glides offered inspiring evidence that mechanical flight was possible. This early publication features Lilienthal on the cover and was part of the small aeronautical library that the Wrights assembled in the years before they actively took up the problem of flight. Written by a wealthy American manufacturer, James Means, this work presents the great Lilienthal as a model to emulate and seeks to encourage others to follow his lead.

James Means. The Problem of Manflight. Boston, Massachusetts: W.B. Clark & Co., 1894. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (111)

Otto Lilienthal

Published originally in Berlin in 1889, Otto Lilienthal's The Flight of Birds as the Basis for the Art of Flying eventually came out in this enlarged edition and included an account of his aerial experiments. As a young boy, Lilienthal became obsessed with the idea of flight. As an adult, his main experimental goal was to learn which natural wing shapes would serve him best. He built several gliders, making more than 2,000 glides. When he was killed in a crash on August 9, 1896, he was already planning to attempt a powered flight.

Otto Lilienthal. Der Vogelflug als Grundlage de Fliegekunst. Munich and Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1910. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (112a)


Chanute Gliders

As a devoted student of aeronautical history and author of the first factual history of man's attempt to fly, the French-born American engineer Octave Chanute (1832–1910) was also a vigorous experimenter. Having designed gliders in 1896, Chanute took his biplane and triplane gliders to the dunes on Lake Michigan, where they were flown experimentally by his protégés. Chanute was the first person to whom Wilbur Wright revealed his hopes and plans for solving the problem of manned flight.

Octave Chanute. Photographs of Chanute glider being flown over dunes on Lake Michigan, 1896. Photo album. Chanute Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (39)

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