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Top 10 Quirkiest Early Flying Machines

This topic is a dream for lovers of lists because there are so many hilarious and quirky attempts at flight that have been documented through history. After wading through hundreds of choices I have picked the 10 quirkiest – you are sure to love them!


Chanute’s Gliding Machine


We all know the trite adage that less is more, but apparently no one told Monsieur Octave Chanute – he seemed to think that more is best as is demonstrated by his ungainly multi-winged flying machine! French born Chanute was a retired engineer living in Chicago, Illinois, when he began to dabble in aeronautics. In 1896 he started testing his “gliding machines” in Dune Park, Indiana, on the shore of Lake Michigan.


The bizarre appearance of this machine with its wings that swung back and forth, caused many people to ridicule the concept – especially as later “classic” designs used trussed and fixed wings. But, even though the glider was a failure, its design contained the germ of an idea that was later used in numerous designs of military aircraft: pivoting movable wing surfaces (seen most notably in the F-111, and B-1).

His glider was built to test the idea of using pivoting wings to control the center of wing pressure – providing stability. Chanute invented the “strut-wire” braced structure that would be used in all biplanes of the future. Before his interest in aviation, Chanute was a well respected railroad engineer who designed and constructed the Chicago stockyards and the Kansas City stockyards. Octave Chanute went on to be the main enthusiast for the Wright Brothers during their early aerial trials, encouraging them and supplying them with the latest aerial information.


Alexandre Goupil’s Sesquiplane


Alexandre Goupil was a well regarded and well known French engineer who designed this bird-like flying machine in 1883. The sesquiplane (a monoplane with additional half-wings) was meant to be powered by a steam engine mounted inside the rounded body of the machine. The engine was to drive a single tractor propeller and it was to have a wheeled landing gear. A rudder was to be mounted below the tail surface.


Goupil built and tested a version of his design without the engine. The test machine had a wing span of just over 19 feet 8 inches. Surprisingly it had considerable lift – hoisting itself and two men into the air in a wind of around 14 MPH. Goupil’s design foreshadowed modern “blended lifting body” configurations.

Pictured to the left we have the initial machine-driven design, while the image at the top shows the unpowered test version. (Click the images for a larger view.)


Charles Ritchel’s Flying Machine


Charles Ritchel’s flying machine was first demonstrated publicly during May and June of 1878. The framework was constructed of brass tubing and it held a gas bag of rubberized fabric. Mabel Harrington was the first to fly this hand-cranked machine though Mark Quinlan is believed to have made the majority of the future demonstration flights, including two lasting over one hour each. Eventually Ritchel would go on to build and sell five of these machines.

Ritchel had plans for a trans-contentinental airline comprising aircraft hand-cranked by 11 men each. This was not to eventuate. Not satisfied with just aviation, Ritchel was actually a prolific inventor – with his most famous invention being the funhouse mirror. He also invented a mechanical money box in which a coin is placed in a monkey’s hand which then tilts the coin back in to a hole in its stomach. Some people attribute the invention of roller skates to Ritchel. Ritchel died in poverty.


Thomas Moy’s “Aerial Steamer”


Thomas Moy’s tandem-wing monoplane called “Aerial Steamer” was a large machine with twin propellers each six-foot in diameter. It was powered by a steam engine (also built by Moy) which reached 3 horse-power at 550 RPM. His plane used a tricycle landing gear. In June 1875, Moy tested his machine in the Crystal Palace in London, England. It managed to reach 12 MPH while running on a track, but it did not generate enough lift to leave the ground. Despite the failure, some design elements (such as the twin-propellers and tricycle landing gear) made their way in to other future plane designs. There is some documentation to suggest that the plane may have lifted 6 inches off the ground, but this not conclusive.


Leonardo Da Vinci’s Flying Machine

Design For A Flying Machine

Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian polymath who was probably the first European to seek a practical solution to flight. He designed a large number of devices, including parachutes, and he studied the flight and structure of birds.

Air Screw

In 1485 he drew a very detailed plan for a human powered ornithopter (a wing-flapping device designed to fly). There is no proof that he attempted to build the device. For the next four centuries, the concept of flying devices designed around birds occurred again and again. For much of his life, Leonardo was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies of the flight of birds, including his c. 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds, as well as plans for several flying machines, including a helicopter and a light hang glider. Most were impractical, but the hang glider has been successfully constructed and demonstrated. He conceptualised a helicopter (pictured right), a tank, concentrated solar power, a calculator, the double hull and outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics.


Le-Bris’ Artificial Albatross


Le Bris built a glider, inspired by the shape of the Albatross bird and named L’Albatros artificiel (“The artificial Albatross”). During 1856 he flew briefly on the beach of Sainte-Anne-la-Palud (Finistère), by being pulled by a running horse, face to the wind. He thus flew higher than his point of departure, a first for heavier-than-air flying machines, reportedly to a height of 100 metres (300 ft), for a distance of 200 metres (600 ft).


In 1868, with the support of the French Navy, he built a second flying machine, which he tried three times in Brest without great success. It was almost identical to his first flying machine, except that it was lighter and had a system to shift weight distribution. His flying machine became the first ever to be photographed, albeit on the ground, by Nadar in 1868.

Le Bris invented flight controls, which could act on the incidence of wings. This invention was patented during March 1857. Le Bris’ dedication to the cause of soaring flight, his innovative derivation of design and function from nature, and his translation to mechanical device, rather than merely being a copying of a natural form, was in itself a remarkable achievement. He persevered with his experiments, succeeding in a fashion, despite personal injury and insult, and despite being relatively poor.


Cayley’s Glider

Cayley Glider Replica Flown By Derek Piggott 2

Sir George Cayley is considered to be one of the most important people in the history of aeronautics. He is considered by many to be the first true scientific aerial investigator and the first to really understand the underlying principles of aviation and flying. His first device (a model helicopter) was built in 1796 with contra-rotating propellers. Three years later he inscribed a medalion which clearly showed the forces that apply in flight. On its reverse he sketched his plan for a monoplane gliding machine.

In 1804 Cayley designed and built a model monoplane glider of strikingly modern appearance. The model featured an adjustable cruciform tail, a kite-shaped wing mounted at a high angle of incidence and a moveable weight to alter the center of gravity. It was probably the first gliding device to make significant flights. Pictured above is a replica of Cayley’s glider.


Giffard’s Airship


French engineer, Henri Giffard invented the injector and the powered airship with a steam engine weighing over 400 lb; it was the world’s first passenger-carrying airship (known as a Dirigible). Both practical and steerable, the hydrogen-filled airship was equipped with a 3 hp steam engine that drove a propeller. The engine was fitted with a downward pointing funnel. The exhaust stream was mixed in with the combustion gases and it was hoped by these means to stop sparks rising up to the gas bag; he also installed a vertical rudder.

On 24 September 1852 Giffard made the first powered and controlled flight traveling 27 km from Paris to Trappes. The wind was too strong to allow him to make way against it, so he was unable to return to the start. However he was able to make turns and circles, proving that a powered airship could be steered and controlled. In response to his declining eyesight, Giffard committed suicide in 1882, leaving his estate to the nation for humanitarian and scientific purposes. His name is one of the 72 names on the Eiffel tower. Pictured above is a model of Giffard’s airship. [Wikipedia]


Clement Ader’s “Bat” Planes


Clement Ader was, by all accounts, a brilliant man who taught himself engineering. His interest in aeronautical matters began in earnest in 1870 when he constructed a gas balloon, and later he invented a number of electrical communications devices. He is most well-known, however, for his two remarkable flying machines, the Ader Eole (model pictured above) and the Ader Avion No. 3. (below.)

446Px-Avion Iii 20050711

Clement Ader claimed that while he was aboard the Ader Eole he made a steam-engine powered low-level flight of around 160 feet on October 9, 1890, in the suburbs of Paris, from a level field on the estate of his friend. He also claimed a flight of some 900 feet in his Avion No. 3 and two witnesses confirmed the event. The Avion No. 3 was a triumph of engineering design derived from nature. Not only did it have an external resemblance to a bat but much of its internal wing structure followed that of the bat, also. To many people, the Ader Eole and Ader Avion No. 3 have become the very symbols of Victorian Era attempts at powered flight.

The claim Ader made about his flight in Avion 3 have been largely disproven, though both planes were remarkable machines in many regards and the majority of French people consider him to be the father of French Aviation.


Gusmão’s Lighter-than-air Airship


Bartolomeu de Gusmão (1685, Santos, São Paulo, Brazil – November 18, 1724, Toledo, Spain), was a Portuguese priest and naturalist born in Colonial Brazil, recalled for his early work on lighter-than-air airship design. In 1709 he presented a petition to King John V of Portugal, begging a privilege for his invention of an airship, in which he expressed the greatest confidence. The contents of this petition have been preserved, as well as a picture and description of his airship.

The vessel was to be propelled by the agency of magnets which, apparently, were to be encased in two hollow metal balls. The public test of the machine, which was set for June 24, 1709, did not take place. According to contemporary reports, however, Gusmão appears to have made several less ambitious experiments with this machine. His contrivance in the main represented the principle of the kite (aeroplane). In all probability he did not have magnets in the aforementioned metal shells, but gases and hot air generated by the combustion of various materials. [Wikipedia]

This article is licensed under the GFDL because it contains quotations from two Wikipedia articles cited above.

Listverse Staff

Listverse is a place for explorers. Together we seek out the most fascinating and rare gems of human knowledge. Three or more fact-packed lists daily.

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  • MPW

    Since I’m still up(3:37am)I may as well comment. I love this list, very interesting, and truly quirky indeed. :)

  • corinthian0430

    Uh… nice list :)

  • fishing4monkeys

    Pretty cool list! #7 looks like a wall…no wonder it didn’t fly.

  • MPW: what are you doing up?

    fishing4monkeys: I am kinda amazed that ANY of them flew :)

  • NiMur90

    Nice list!

  • MPW

    I can’t sleep, plus I’m not very tired. Good thing LV keeps me entertained while I fight my insomnia :)

  • Randallphobia

    I love the fact that Chanute was such an enthusiast that he was willing to help the Wright Brothers even though they succeeded where he failed. That is a sign of a man with good character.

  • MPW: indeed – it keeps us all entertained :)

    Randallphobia: I agree! We need more men of character like him today!

  • ciunas

    Brilliant list — thanks. Some brave men there. Such a thin line between being a visonary & being a nutter sometimes.

    I suppose I fly 1,000s of miles a year nowadays, & altho I’m not nervous I find it isn’t a great idea to spend too long analyzing that fact that I’m hurtling along in a pressurized metal tube several miles above the planet’s surface…

  • ciunas

    Visionary, that is.

  • I love this list! It makes me think of that book, The First Men in the Moon :-D

  • I kind’ve wonder how Da Vinci studied the birds. He studied them so well and created so many (sorta) realistic designs. Each person on this list had something to offer to the future airplanes, I wonder what they would think of the advancements that have been made in the present?

  • Kreachure

    Very nice list! This instantly reminded me of that old footage of wacky flying machines that fail miserably (and hilariously) at flying.

    And here it is for your enjoyment!

    :D :D :D

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  • A fascinating list!
    I expected DaVinci’s to be #1 until I got to #1…WOW is all I can say…what an imagination Bartolomeu de Gusmão had! The concept was amazing, and I’m really disappointed he didn’t have the opportunity to give it a go.
    I love the lists on sciences and arts the best (though I love them all), so this one is right up my alley.
    btw, I sent a copy to my husband, a retired U.S. Air Force Navigator, and I’m rather sure he’ll have a word or two to add to the discussion.

  • kowzilla

    I was really surprised by this list. I expected a list of ten people jumping off cliffs with wooden wings strapped to their arms!

    Also as a gigantic dork who enjoys steampunk, this list really made me smile. Its probably one of my favorites all time. Informative, creative, well-written…

    I think what I am trying to say is, this list and I will be announcing our engagement soon.

    (Sorry, sometimes my hyperboles tend to snowball.)

  • Csimmons

    good list, very quirky indeed.

  • Mom424

    What an excellent list Jamie. I of course had seen some of these (Those Wonderful Men and Their Flying Machines anyone?), but had no clue about the men behind the machines. Excellent.

    I have to compliment you on the quality of the latest lists. Not one lame entry. I am sooo impressed. You’ve got like a triple hat-trick on the board.

    Keep up the good work! :)

  • sgvaibhav

    Wow, never heard of these all quirky flying machines
    I like #2, its just very cool according to me!!

  • Randallphobia

    I just remembered that, in the concrete glider episode of “Mythbusters,” Adam created a scale version of Cayley’s glider. It was the 1st time that I’d ever heard of the man.

  • bigski

    Amazing how powered flight has advanced

  • Angharad

    “We all know the trite adage that more is less”

    You mean “less is more?”

    Granted, in math, if a = b, then b = a, but that’s not true for language.

  • Miss Destiny

    Ah, very fascinating list! I enjoyed the diagrams and seeing some of the crazy ideas they had back in those days. Also, when I first read the title of this list, I immediately thought of Leonardo da Vinci. Awesome! :)

  • Angharad: oops – you are rigth :) I will fix it.

  • Diogenes

    Well, this sure makes my early attemps of “float or flight” by jumping off the roof of my parents house, with nothing but a flimsy umbrella, look like crap!
    But hey. At least I played it safe by wearing my trusty blue stuntman jacket, which made me impervious to pain…almost.

    Nice to see, at least, that my later years mimiced Charles Ritchel’s Flying Machine(#8 ).

    Use Bushels of Hay! – to rise above the rest!
    huh? wha? A gas bag of rubberized fabric? your kidding.
    yeh that’s what I meant. Did I say Bushels of Hay? Who in their right mind would try and fly by the areonautical powers of Hay? THERE AREN”T ANY.
    Only an idiot would do that.
    A gas bag of rubberized fabric–yeh thats it. A gas bag of rubberized fabric.
    that’s what I meant.

    I only wish we had these choices today instead of those stupid and rickidy Boeing 747s and the like.
    Airships are cool. I suppose adding jet engines to an airship would destroy all the elegance.
    Big balls of gas!

  • ****
    24. Diogenes
    Well, this sure makes my early attemps of “float or flight” by jumping off the roof of my parents house, with nothing but a flimsy umbrella, look like crap!
    But hey. At least I played it safe by wearing my trusty blue stuntman jacket, which made me impervious to pain…almost.
    My brother and I would jump off the roof of my parents house repeatedly, and never got hurt…of course we were jumping into a swimming pool. We *would* have gotten hurt if our parents ever caught us.

  • I used to jump off my friends garden shed roof into a pile of wood – until I landed on a rusty nail. I didn’t do it anymore.

  • Diogenes

    our bones were mostly made of rubber back then.
    no swimming pool below for us. just our jackets and our guts and dum ass dares.
    still have a few scars i can point out.

    but, then again I always thought the guys with arm casts were cool (from dirt bike fiascos- backyard tumble tackles- getting hit by cars–or the like, I guess)

    Ah wood piles-gotta love them.

    It was always something rusty …..
    or dog shit.

  • Diogenes

    can say if i was truely lucky to my falls being more in shit than something rusty.

  • Well, there was the time I jumped from atop a wall into a rose garden…directly into a rose bush…and once from halfway up a telephone pole into an alley…but give me a break, guys! I’m a girl!

  • segue: ouch!

  • Michael

    No mention of Santos-Dumont? For shame.

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  • As 8/9 year olds my brother and I used to build hot air balloons, model planes (the sort using paper and glue stretched over wooden frames) and hijack blow-flies to carry paper notes into the unknown. But the closest approximation of flying we could manage ourselves was jumping off the garage roof onto the trampoline :-D

  • interesting list

  • Anon

    Yes, indeed, Santos-Dumont. If I recall, there is a view that he was one of the closest to upstaging the Wrights.

    Otto Lilienthal was just too successful to feature here, of course. The man who invented the hang-glider and another who greatly helped to pave the way to powered flight. After a long and impressive series of gliding flights, he eventually died *in action*. RIP.

    The American, Langley, was another famous pioneer who didn’t quite cut the heavier-than-air-flight mustard.

    Those who are enjoying this site and haven’t seen it might like to investigate the film ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’. The flying machines feature almost as much as the men (and Sarah Miles).

  • stewart

    Number 8 seems like something that will work if there is not too much wind. Maybe change the hand cranking to bicycle pedals with a gear system and a different propeller.

  • Royce

    Leonardo Da Vinci, such a smart man

  • #30. jfrater
    segue: ouch!
    The bigger ouch was when my mum was removing the dratted thorns!

  • Vera Lynn

    We used to have to shovel the roofs and carports so that they would’t cave in under the weight of the snow. We would jump off the roof into 8 feet of snow (during a good winter only)or huge snow banks where the snow had drifted. That was too cool.

  • I am amazed at how little attention this list has received! It took ages to write!

  • kris

    are these machines still there???

  • Anon


    Never mind the numbers, feel the quality. I’d have expected a lot more response too. I even remember Randall writing somewhere he was interested in aircraft. Maybe I should give up the idea of writing something along similar lines myself soon, but I wouldn’t do a list I didn’t thoroughly enjoy researching and learning from anyway. Thanks from one grateful customer.

  • ciunas

    It’s an excellent list & I love the illustrations. But I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that. (At least nobody chimed in with anything along the lines of ‘If God had meant us to fly he’d have given us wings’… That would have boosted the number of comments…)

  • I also expected more in the way of responses. I even forwarded the list to my husband, a retired U.S. Air Force navigator, thinking he’d enjoy it and perhaps want to comment.
    When I asked him about it, he said that yes, he liked it, but he’d already known all of them, and more, and what was there to say?
    So, I’m sorry, but maybe the fact is that too many of us just knew the information already.
    I still think it’s an excellent list, though!

  • Anon

    Perhaps the trouble was too that no one filed any of those controversial idiot remarks we know-alls could have refuted indignantly with bucket-loads of extra information. (Or havn’t yet.) Thinking about it, I believe my proposed list will draw them though!

  • Anon


    I’ve just popped in here from reading a number of other better supported lists, and I think I’ve sussed the problem. You MUST deliberately leave out one or two really important entries. If you do that you’ll have the whole of LV posting in the topic and down on you like a ton of bricks.

  • mintzy

    number 2 looks great! it looks really artsy.

  • Ryan

    lol. those are weird. if i had to choose one to fly in i would choose #3 :P

  • Ryan

    :P :) >:) :( :[) :D

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  • alex

    +++ I love planes and the history behind them

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