Who Really Invented Flight? What a Fight!

Who Really Invented Flight? What a Fight!
Ellen Wilson: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three to four class periods


   Today, much debate continues as to the ‘first in flight’ title.  Most claim that the Wright brothers were the very first to fly a self-powered machine capable of carrying a human in the air.  Ellen Wilson, before becoming first lady, would have heard little of the event, as only four newspapers in the United States printed the news made in Kitty Hawk. Mr. Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian, publicly demonstrated his flying machine years after the Wright brothers.  This man was well-known in Paris, the world ‘headquarters’ for flight as a pioneer in flight.  In October 1906, he flew his aircraft in Paris, France and drew much publicity for his feat, whereas in December of 1903, the Wright brothers flew their craft with very little publicity in Kitty Hawk, N.C., United States. 


   This lesson will introduce students to the biographical information of the Wright brothers and Alberto Santos-Dumont and the contributions they had on flight developments as well as the  impact of public relations and media on historical events.

   Students will develop critical thinking skills as they debate arguments developed by proponents of each side during the controversy in the early 1900’s on who originated human flight.

Materials Required:

Internet access (website suggestions listed in resources) Airplanes timeline link Research materials and tools (Books, magazines, articles, etc.) Computer(s) Word processor (or paper and writing utensil)


1.  Introduce the lesson by asking students “Who invented flight?”  

2.  Explain to students that there was considerable controversy as to who actually was the first to complete a powered flight event.

3.  Place students into two groups.  Inform students that they are detectives and need to locate the truth about the First Flight.  Each group will represent either the Wright brothers or Alberto Santos-Dumont.

4.  Have students research the Wright brothers and Alberto Santos-Dumont using the Internet, books, articles, magazine and other resource materials.

5.  Allow students to have a class debate about the contributions of both groups of inventors as well as the arguments for who the legitimate ‘owner’ of the title belongs to.

6.  After the debate, involve students in a discussion of the role media has on history.

7.  Each student will submit a paper summarizing the contribution of each side of the debate, who they believe had the first flight, and how the media plays a role in how news and information is disseminated and affects history.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Invite students to construct flyable scale models of early aircraft, attempting to replicate the designs used by the Wright brothers and Dumont.  (the models should be gliders)

Sources & Resources:

Websites: Credits:
This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University