Introduction

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“Miss Harriet Quimby up in her plane,” 1911. Copyright Leslie Jones. CC-BY-NC-ND. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

The trial-and-error filled beginnings of aviation were led by men, including the Wright brothers, who designed the first successful planes. They built and flew biplanes, which had two stacked wings on either side of the plane's body. While these were the first to fly, there remained some debate over whether these or monoplanes—with one set of wings that mimicked birds—would come out on top.

During the era of the Wright brothers, in the early 1900s, plane engines were low-powered, causing drag that made it difficult to gain much altitude. Many of the early monoplanes failed, with the fragile, wooden wings folding up as soon as they lifted off the ground.

Louis Bléroit was one of the first to design successful monoplanes, which often flew much faster than biplanes because they had less drag. However, Bléroit’s planes did not perform consistently: they often failed along with other early monoplane designs.

The start of World War I inspired innovation in airplane design. This included the use of cantilevered wings, which are anchored on just one end and still in use today. This type of wing reduces the weight of the plane, and increases speed and efficiency. Other improvements included metal-skinned wings and more powerful engines. It was during this era, leading up to and including WWI, that women became part of aviation’s development.