So the years sped by, the nineteenth century had nearly passed away, and to the man in the street flight appeared as hopelessly remote as ever. But to a small, yet ever-increasing, band of enthusiasts it seemed that dawn was near breaking. The eighteen-nineties arrived, and all over the world men were working feverishly. In this country Mr. Horatio Phillips was experimenting on the most efficient forms of planes, and quietly and unostentatiously doing ' spadework ' that only the aeroplane constructor of the present day can estimate at its full value. Sir Hiram Maxim was turning his giant brain from guns to flying machines, and actually, in 1893, produced a perfect leviathan of an aeroplane, weighing over 3 tons and driven by a steam-engine of 360 horse-power, which was for those days a miracle of lightness. Unfortunately this stately craft had but a short life, for, impatient for the heavens, it rose into the air before it was intended to do so, and so brought about its own destruction in the very moment of its success.
In America, Professor Langley was flying engine-driven monoplanes from a house-boat moored in the broad waters of the Potomac, his patient and all-important work deserving better success than it achieved. Through lack of funds he was obliged to cut short his experiments after a heart-breaking series of accidents, and it is said that disappointment hastened his death. Eleven years later poetic justice was done to his memory by Glenn Curtiss, the famous American aviator, who repaired Langley's old machine and made an excellent flight with it, thus vindicating, alas too late, its author's work as a true pioneer.
In France, Ader, a well-known electrician, produced three fearfully and wonderfully made machines, the first of which, it is stated, actually achieved a flight or glorified hop as far back as October 1890, years before Maxim or anyone else had got into the air; while the last and most successful, ' L'Avion ' by name, flew 300 yards in 1897 before a committee of army officers appointed by the French Government. To begin with the Government assisted financially in the work, which, first to last, cost Ader a million francs ; but in the end they tired of him, pronounced him a crank and threw him over, a deeply disappointed man. Nevertheless he had his revenge. The day came, some fifteen years later, when the French nation would have given many million francs to undo their mistake and prove to the triumphant Americans that they were indeed the first in the field of flight. Tardy justice was meted out to the aged aviator, and in graceful acknowledgment of his work the French military aeroplanes are known as ' avions 9 in remembrance of the nightmare machine, with wings like a bat and propeller blades like feathers, that feebly fluttered from the ground so long ago.
But there were certain men who grasped the fact that there was yet a shorter and surer path to success. So far would-be flyers had begun with the hardest task of all, the getting of their machines off the ground. All their skill and strength were expended in this effort, so that when they rose in air at length they lacked the knowledge and experience to keep them there and the result was continual disaster. ' To conceive a flying machine is nothing ; to construct one is little ; to fly is everything,' These were the words of Otto Lilienthal, an engineer of Berlin, and in proof of his belief he started where men might have started so long ago, with learning to balance and glide with a framework of wings attached to his body, launching himself from a height and planing 1 to the ground. Rapidly he grew in skill and knowledge, adding larger wings and a big curving tail to his glider, making it ever more stable and easier to control, learning ever new facts about its lifting power and design. So proficient did he become that he could glide for 400 yards at a time, and he was already contemplating putting an engine into his apparatus when, one day, some part of his machine gave way in the air, and he fell 50 feet to the ground and broke his back.
Long before this happened (in 1896) he had an English disciple in Percy S. Pilcher, a young engineer who also laboured enthusiastically with gliders of somewhat different design, and continued, by their use, to add to the general knowledge of flight, until he too fell from a height and was killed. Thus died two early martyrs of aviation, their lives not sacrificed in vain, but given for that great triumph whose arrival their work has so greatly hastened.
LilienthaTs gliding experiments fired other pioneers all over the world, among them Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers in America, as we have seen. Lilienthal and Pilcher had used monoplane-shaped gliders and balanced them by swinging their bodies, which dangled below. The Americans found that much better results could be obtained with a biplane, or two-decker form of craft, on the lower plane of which the aviator (only he did not yet know himself by that name) lay prone and still, keeping his balance by manipulating the machine and not himself. This again was a tremendous advance.
In Australia also record-making work was in progress, for there Lawrence Hargrave was making experiments which culminated in the invention of the famous ' box-kite,' prototype of innumerable flying machines. Thus everywhere men were labouring, in different ways, and with independent methods, at one great problem. The work was growing apace. It needed only some last great impetus which should unite the results already attained, and break down the last tottering barrier to success.
And it came, in the fullness of time, in an unlooked-for fashion, from a totally unexpected quarter. In those years there began to be seen about the roads unfamiliar horseless vehicles at which the rustic gaped in incredulous amazement. Little jeering boys stood in circles round men who grovelled in the mud beneath complicated apparatus which refused to work. Millionaires sat patiently, hour after hour, in the hedge contemplating the new toy which had stranded them hopelessly the other end of nowhere, and the smell of burnt petrol grew familiar in the land. Fitful, capricious, imperfect as it first was, the motor-car had arrived, and with it had brought that wonderful, light, petrol-driven, internal-combustion engine that Sir George Cayley had dreamed of a century before, and that now, at long last, even as he said, made flight possible. Santos Dumont put one of these early engines into a balloon (in 1898) and behold the modern airship. Wilbur and Orville Wright five years later fitted a petrol motor of their own construction into their most successful type of glider, and on December 17, 1903, a flight was made of 852 feet. Before two years had elapsed they had flown 20 miles. The aeroplane had arrived !