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Which Came First: Airplanes or Paper Airplanes?

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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.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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

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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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