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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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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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