Did This Frenchman Beat The Wright Brothers To Powered Flight?

Want the short definitive, no-hedging answer? Probably. Of course, it's not that simple, because nothing is, especially the first of things. Benz likes to claim they "invented" the car, but they clearly didn't. Flight is similar, but I think it can be reasonably said Felix du Temple beat the Wright Bros to flight by 29 years.

Of course, we should define "flight." What I'm talking about here is a big milestone: motorized, powered flight. Du Temple seems to have achieved this in 1874, with his steam-powered Monoplane. The Wrights still have the record for the first controlled, sustainable powered flight, which is the really important record, but that doesn't diminish the fact that most people only know their names, and give them credit for everything.

Did This Frenchman Beat The Wright Brothers To Powered Flight?

In fact, the Wrights themselves didn't even claim to be the absolute first — in a 1901 speech, Wilbur Wright referred to a semi-accidental flight by Hiram Maxim's steam powered plane — and that's just one of a number of early aviation pioneers that educational laziness has papered over with a big picture of the Wright Brothers.

That's why I want to showcase some of these less-celebrated pioneers, like our dashing pal Félix du Temple de la Croix. His pals and most of the world just calls him Félix du Temple, because when you're an aviation pioneer, you probably want a shorter name to save precious weight.

Du Temple, a Captian in the French Navy, had been experimenting with aircraft for years, producing a flying model powered by a clockwork motor in 1857. This was one of the first (but probably not the very first — that's another article) powered heavier-than-air flights of anything that wasn't hatched from an egg or emerged from a ladybat's vagina.

Du Temple built these smaller models with his brother, and soon became interested in a full-sized, piloted version. The problem was most of the steam engines of the era had truly awful power-to-weight ratios, and even Lenoir's early internal combustion engines were no better.

Being a determined bastard, Felix didn't give up, eventually designing his own damn steam engine. As we're told by this article in Flight:

When he began with the aid of his brother, M. Louis du Temple, to experiment on a large scale, the inadequacy of all motors then known became apparent. They first tried steam at very high pressures, then a hot-air engine, and finally built and patented, in 1876 a very light steam boiler weighing from 39 to 44 lb. to the horse power, which appears to have been the prototype of some of the light boilers which have since been constructed. It consisted in a series of very thin tubes less than 1/8 in. in internal diameter, through which water circulated very rapidly, and was flashed into steam by the surrounding flame.

This roughly 6 HP engine was the key — light and just powerful enough to maybe be useful. The fuselage of Monoplane was designed much like a boat, with wooden spars covered in fabric. A lot of aluminum was used for the rest of the structure, predicting future aircraft construction. It weighed only around 160 lbs! There was a propeller with a whole crapload of blades and large flat wings and tail surfaces. There was a vertical rudder/tail located below the horizontal tail surface, a location also likely informed by Naval design.

The resulting contraption looks pretty whimsical to our modern eyes — like some kind of goofy flying boat you'd see in the background of some acid-addled mid-60s cartoon. But it did kind of work.

Did This Frenchman Beat The Wright Brothers To Powered Flight?

Cleverly enlisting a French soldier to actually try and fly the thing, Felix and his brother conducted a number of test runs with the 40-foot wingspan Monoplane, which, after using a ski-slope-like ramp to give some initial speed, managed to take off under its own power and fly and/or glide briefly, then coming to a safe landing.

The flights were short, and the craft was largely uncontrollable. It's possible the Monoplane could have attempted longer flights, but it's unlikely they would have been sustainable or controllable, which is precisely what the Wright brothers managed to do.

Still, it does seem to be the first piloted, engine-powered, heavier-than-air flight of any kind, and for that this sideburn enthusiast with big dreams certainly deserves some credit.