CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Which Came First: Airplanes or Paper Airplanes?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

What came first, the paper airplane or the real thing? It’s a valid question, but the answer is obvious once you look at history. Paper planes were, in fact, a vital precedent in developing manned flight. That elusive power had captivated people until the Wright Brothers achieved the feat in their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but the origins of paper planes—and the ambitious curiosity behind flight—go back generations.

Ancient Paper Planes and the Leonardo Factor

Specifics are hazy, and there's some disagreement surrounding who is actually responsible for first folding up a piece of paper and letting it fly. Technically some 2000 years ago the ancient Chinese were the first to invent the paper plane since they also used papyrus paper to invent the kite, but their primitive designs may not have much in common with the paper planes we make today. (Detractors claim these Chinese designs were more akin to simple origami birds that were thrown without the intention of having them fly.)

Others—who point out that the relative and proportional concepts of air resistance and velocity weren’t fully grasped until centuries later—say Leonardo da Vinci and his documented experiments in bringing his failed ornithopter to life make him the creator of the paper plane. Always fascinated by the concept of flight—he even sketched out crude concepts for a parachute and a helicopter—the artist and inventor’s notebooks specifically reference his attempts at building a model plane out of parchment. (Scientific American even named the magazine’s first paper plane contest prize, The Leonardo, after him.)

Gliding Along

A subsequent pioneer in airplane flight (both paper and real) is Sir George Cayley, the man who identified the four primary aerodynamic forces of weight, lift, drag, and thrust. In 1804—just shy of a century before the Wright Brothers’ flight—Cayley built and flew the first successful human-controlled glider based on his observations that the propulsion of the plane should generate thrust and the shape of the wings should create lift, as opposed to the long-held belief that the propulsion force should generate both forward motion and lift, like da Vinci’s failed ornithopter or the wings of a bird. Cayley documented the tests of his ideas using small model gliders made of linen that he flung from the hillside near his home in Yorkshire, England.   

The Wright Stuff

Wikimedia Commons

Wilbur and Orville Wright would also experiment extensively with paper planes while tinkering with their designs for powered flight. They continued to use wind tunnels and small model planes to test out what they came up with, graduating to larger kite models and, eventually, creating the Wright Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft, which was made from spruce wood and fabric.

This practice of starting small with paper designs to refine aerodynamic ideas for larger aircraft would continue on, most notably in the 1930s when Jack Northrop, the co-founder of the Lockheed Corporation, used paper planes for tests that led to the development of many of the planes and bombers that helped the Allied powers win World War II.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
iStock
iStock

Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
iStock
iStock

by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios