A: The Wright brothers, of course.
Although it’s the sort of thing that most any American grade-school student should know, the answer hasn’t always (or everywhere) been obvious. Pose the same question to a Russian citizen and there is a decent chance he (or she) will responded with the name Alexander Mozhaiskii.
Virtually unknown in the West, Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaiskii (1825-1890) was an Imperial naval officer, engineer, and early aviation pioneer. During the 1870s and 1880s he conducted a series of aerial experiments that included the 1882 launch of a steam-powered flying machine. However, as the flat wings affixed to Mozhaiskii’s contraption were incapable of producing lift, the aircraft relied on the momentum produced by rolling down an inclined ramp to become airborne.
Which is to say, it didn’t.
Still, to this day, some official Russian publications maintain that Mozhaiskii’s creation is, in fact, the world’s first airplane. No doubt, much of the support for this claim derives from the fact that Mozhaiskii’s device looks more like a modern airplane than did the Wrights’ design.
Given the propensity of Soviet-era propagandists to claim Russian credit for the invention of everything from the steam engine, to radio, penicillin, and even baseball (!), Western historians have been prone to dismiss the Mozhaiskii story as just another example of strident Soviet chauvinism. In actuality, the Mozhaiskii claim predates the USSR by more than a decade. The story was advanced as early as 1910 in an article titled “The First Aviators” published in the most prominent tsarist-era newspaper Novoe vremia (The New Times).
Viewed in the broader perspective, nationalistic claims of this sort are not at all unusual. The origins of the airplane were contested for decades before and after the Wrights’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. As late as the 1920s some Frenchmen continued to insist that Clément Ader’s bat-shaped Éole (1890) was actually the world’s first airplane. Meanwhile, to this day, many Brazilians insist that one of their native sons, Alberto Santos-Dumont, should be recognized as the pioneer of controlled heavy-than-air flight. Even in the United States, the Wrights’ triumph long went unrecognized by folks who should have known better. It wasn’t until 1914 that officials at the Smithsonian Institution finally acknowledged that the Wright Flyer and not former Smithsonian head Samuel P. Langley’s Great Aerodrome was the first airplane to take to the air.
So, while the answer to the question “Who invented the airplane?” may now be obvious. It hasn’t always been so.