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Who flew before the Wright Brothers?

Orville and Wilbur Wright are generally credited with being the first in flight. Whether that's true depends on your definition of "flight". If you mean controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, then that's what they are known for, but even that may not be quite true, since controlled and sustained are not black-or-white terms. There were plenty of aviation pioneers working on flying in the nineteenth century; after all, we had automobiles and balloons and gliders already, many figured it shouldn't be too difficult to combine them. And there were some substantial cash rewards up for grabs around the turn of the century.

Félix du Temple de la Croix was a French Naval officer who recieved a patent for a flying machine in 1857. This version never flew, but the steam engine design was successfully used to power boats in later years. By 1874, he had developed a lightweight steam-powered monoplane which flew short distances under its own power after takeoff from a ski-jump.

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Alexander Fyodorovich Mozhayskiy was a Russian Naval officer who tackled the problem of heavier-than-air flight twenty years before the Wright Brothers. His 60-100 foot hop of 1884 is now considered a power-assisted takeoff, utilizing a ramp for lift. Since his flatwing monoplane was 75 feet long itself, the event must've been underwhelming. Although not considered a real powered flight, Mozhayskiy made some significant breakthroughs in propulsion and steering. The details of Mozhayskiy's research have been somewhat obscured due to the Soviet's use of his story for propaganda purposes.

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French inventor Clément Ader distinguished himself as the first to develop stereo sound, among his many engineering innovations. He was the first to achieve self-propelled flight, with a batwing aircraft powered by a steam engine. His first flight was around 50 meters, on October 9, 1890, a full 13 years before the Wright Brothers! He then designed a better flying machine that reportedly flew 200 yards in 1892. A public demonstration in 1897 apparently ended badly, and Ader lost his Department of War funding. More pictures here.

More early fliers, after the jump.

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American-turned-English citizen Sir Hiram Maxim invented the automatic machine gun and the mousetrap. He also fought Thomas Edison over the patent for the light bulb. His airplane, the Maxim Flyer, was enormous. It had a 104-foot wingspan, including a 40-foot center "kite" section. A steam engine powered two 18-foot propellers. The plane was tethered to a railroad track, so the altitude of flight would not exceed nine inches during tests. However, on July 31st, 1894, the plane broke free of the restraint and achieved an altitude of almost five feet!

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American Augustus Moore Herring applied for a patent for a man-supporting, heavier-than-air, motorized, controllable flying machine in 1896. On October 11, 1899, he flew 50 feet in a glider with a compressed air engine in St. Joseph, Michigan, and flew 73 feet on October 22nd, a flight that was witnessed and reported in the local newspaper. Modern aviation engineers consider Herring's flights as glider flights (resembling a hang glider), and not a significant advance in aviation.

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Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant to the United States, built several airplanes before the Wrights took their first flight. A 1935 account in Popular Avation magazine said Whitehead had flown a steam-powered plane as early as 1899! He was also reported to have flown a gasoline-powered plane on August 14, 1901 in Fairfield, Connecticut. A 1901 newspaper account told the story, but it is the only source from that time period. A reproduction of the airplane Whitehead used in the 1901 flight (known as Number 21) was built and successfully flight tested in 1997, pointing to the possibility that he could have flown earlier than the Wright Brothers.

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Karl Jatho of Hanover, Germany tested his flat-winged airplane several times between August and November 1903. His longest flight was less than 200 feet at an altitude of about 10 feet, but it was still motorized flight, months before the Wright Brothers. He later improved the plane design and successfully flew longer and higher in 1909.

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The Rev. Burrell Cannon was inspired by the book of Ezekiel when he built the Ezekiel Airship around 1900, with $20,000 from investors. The first model was destroyed during shipping. There is no concrete evidence that the second model ever flew, but four witnesses said they saw it fly at an altitude of about 12 feet in 1902. The Rev. Cannon was not one of the witnesses, as he was preaching that day when his employee, Gus Stamps, reportedly decided to take a spin in the airship. There were no photographs, and no repeat performances. A replica of the Ezekiel Airship is on display at the Depot Museum in Pittsburg. Texas.

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Possibly the best claim to successful powered and controlled flight before the Wright Brothers comes from New Zealand. Richard Pearse of Waitohi worked on the problem of powered flight beginning in 1899, and developed an aircraft that quite resembled a modern ultralight. Pearse would have beaten the Wrights by eight months if he hadn't crashed at the end of his 140 meter flight on March 31st, 1903. Or maybe it was the lack of photographs, logs, or written records of the flight. The few eyewitnesses couldn't agree on the length of the flight, or even the exact date. Some accounts place the flight as early as 1902; some as late as 1904. Since the landing wasn't really any rougher than the Wright's landing during that first flight at Kill Devil Hills, the lack of documentation probably kept Pearse out of most history books.

Orville and Wilbur Wright will always be known as the first fliers for several reasons. The design of their successful plane was a breakthrough for the curvature of the wings, which provided lift. They had carefully documented records, photographs, and credible witnesses. They were masters of publicity and promotion; for example, taking President Theodore Roosevelt for an airplane ride (on film) didn't hurt their reputation a bit. And there was that feud with the Smithsonian Institution. The Wright Brothers plane was finally consigned to the Institution in 1948 when the conservators agreed to this stipulation from Orville's estate:

Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.

See part two of this documentary here.

The science of aviation also owes a lot to the research of those who built planes but never successfully flew. The history of aviation is full of colorful characters, many of whom developed pieces of what eventually became our modern airplanes. Such breakthroughs, of course, continued after the Wright Brother's flight of 1903 and still continue today, but those earliest flights were the most exciting.

Special thanks to Bill for research on this article!

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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