Human ingenuity and the industrial revolution combined to develop mechanical and electronic means for conducting tasks that would otherwise either not have existed, in the case of manned flight, or remained subject to crude, inefficient methodologies. The inventions of the sewing machine and the light bulb were two prime examples of the application of science and industry to transform how people sewed textiles and illuminated space. The act of sewing has been around tens of thousands of years. Archaeological and anthropologic discoveries have verified that humans were using crude devices, such as early versions of needles, to construct clothing, blankets and other items made from cotton, wool, animal remains, wood fibers and other materials. By the middle of the 18th Century, the industrial revolution was underway and, with it, the search for more efficient means of performing tasks like sewing. The development of the sewing needle is considered to have preceded the sewing machine, with Charles Weisethal, a German immigrant living in London, being credited with the invention of the needle in 1755, followed by Thomas Saint’s invention of the sewing machine in 1779. Prior to these technological developments, sewing had been performed essentially the same way for thousands of years. With the invention of the machine, however, productivity could be increased dramatically and fewer workers would be needed to turn out the same quantity of product as before.
Benjamin Franklin, of course, is credited with the “discovery” of electricity, although others, as far back as the early 17th Century, had been investigating the natural properties of magnetism and the manner in which elements were attracted to each other or, conversely, repulsed. It was Franklin, though, who made the connection between electricity and light. Once an understanding of that natural phenomenon occurred, applications of this form of energy were begun in earnest. It was Thomas Edison (1847-1931) who painstakingly developed the process by which electricity could be harnessed for the use of light employing mechanical means of controlling the electricity and channeling it so that the light bulb he was inventing would have practical applications – in effect, illuminating a closed environment without the use of dangerous gases or fire. By 1879, he had succeeded in developing the incandescent light bulb, the basic science of which continues to be used today, and with far more success than contemporary Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) bulbs that are proving highly unstable and utilize the extremely toxic chemical substance mercury.
Whereas the inventions of the sewing machine and the incandescent light bulb can be considered evolutionary developments in terms of man’s desire to find more efficient means of performing everyday tasks, the invention of manned flight has its origins in a more mythical sense. Ancient Greek mythology includes the well-known story of Icarus, the son of an eminently wise inventor named Daedalus who had constructed wings made of feathers and wax so that the two could escape imprisonment. Warning his headstrong son against flying too high, lest the heat from the Sun melt the wax, Daedalus and Icarus set off. Icarus, ignoring his father’s warning, flew too near the Sun, which melted the wax and caused him to fall to the Earth, landing in the sea and drowning. To this day, the legend of Icarus is used as a warning against impetuousness and hubris.
While the story of Icarus is, as noted, a myth, man’s fascination with flight has been around for thousands of years, and existed irrespective of any practical applications for manned flight. In the late 15th Century, Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci envisioned machines that could transport humans, Once again, the industrial revolution made possible the means of constructing machines that could take off and land safely, and the practical applications were rapidly apparent. The NASA website the link to which is provided below offers useful information on the history of manned flight, but suffice to say man’s desire to fly existed separate from the uses to which the invention of the airplane would be put. The development of hot-air balloons in the late-18th Century provided probably the first opportunity for humans to use flight for practical purposes. Hot-air balloons were used during the Civil War as a means of providing a better view of battlefields and of enemy positions, and the development of dirigibles would logically follow, with both commercial transport and military reconnaissance applications. Samuel Langley attempted to combine the development of the steam-powered engine with the frame of a crude aircraft, but his efforts were unsuccessful. It was the Wright Brothers in the early 20th Century who successfully conducted powered flight from 1903 to 1905, and they are credited, although not without some controversy, with the invention of the airplane. Once inventors and scientists dedicated themselves to designing and testing larger, more powerful aircraft, applications, such as the dropping of bombs, the transportation of cargo and passengers, and other uses quickly followed.