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

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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.