You may think you know who was the first to fly, who invented the automobile, and who was the first to show a motion picture to an audience. But a closer look at definitions and facts sometimes suggests different conclusions. And we learn that time and circumstances may revise the early drafts of history.
The flight pioneers
Most of us know that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to fly an airplane. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville flew under power for 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The three flights that day were witnessed by four men and a boy. Someone took a picture.
But if you'd asked someone in Paris about airplanes in 1907, you'd have heard a different story. Why, everyone knew that a Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, had invented the airplane.
Wealthy Brazilian plantation-owner Santos-Dumont made a 190-foot flight before a crowd at Bagatelle, France, on Oct. 23, 1906. To this day, though, many Latin Americans, and some French, say the Wrights' claim is dubious. If they had done what they claimed, why weren't American newspapers brimming with it? Why hadn't more people seen them fly? His supporters say Santos-Dumont was first.
"That's not true," says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "Santos-Dumont deserves a lot of credit, and he was a colorful guy, but he did not invent the airplane. The Wright brothers did."
Santos Dumont was the first to fly a plane publicly.
The Wrights' earliest flights were secret. "Their patent was still pending," Crouch explains. "They were afraid that someone would steal the secret." The Wrights didn't give interviews. They issued a press release in January 1904, but few people took notice. Reporters were skeptical about claims of heavier-than-air flight because so many such claims turned out to be hoaxes.
The Wrights kept a low profile. So in the first decade of the century, the Brazilian inventor was widely acclaimed as the inventor of the airplane.
The Wright brothers' moment came two years after Santos-Dumont's flight. In 1908 they had their patent and made a triumphant demonstration of the Wright Flyer in Paris. Santos-Dumont's machine needed a long runway and could fly only in a straight line. The Wrights' machine got into the air quickly and could turn. Soon, history was recast.
But the Wrights were not the first to fly. That claim belongs to Jean Piltre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes. The two Frenchmen went aloft Nov. 17, 1783 aboard a hot-air balloon manufactured by the Montgolfier brothers.
Santos-Dumont does have an undeniable claim to fame. He received the first commercially marketed wristwatch from his friend, famed watchmaker Louis Cartier. The device let him check the time safely while flying - no need to fumble for a pocket watch.
Controversy over cars
No one person "invented" the automobile. But that doesn't keep people from arguing about who did. It comes down to how you define "automobile."
The first "horseless carriage" was built by French Army officer Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot (coo-NYOH). He built a steam-powered carriage in 1769. (The steam locomotive wouldn't arrive for another 40 years.) You didn't need a seat belt to ride Cugnot's carriage: It had a top speed of 2-1/2 miles per hour. That's a little slower than you can walk. Was it an automobile? Nope, many historians say. A steam-powered car is not a car.
Cugnot's invention inspired others. By the mid-1800s, steam-powered omnibuses were rumbling through the streets of London and other European cities carrying fare-paying passengers.
Many say Carl Benz invented the first real automobile. In 1885, the German mechanic built a crude two-passenger, three-wheeled vehicle powered by a four-stroke gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engine.
But - wait a minute! - two months before Benz demonstrated his motorwagen, Austrian Siegfried Marcus displayed his automobile at a Vienna fair. Wasn't he first?
Both Benz's and Marcus's vehicles were three-wheelers. But historians rule out the Austrian's invention. Why? Because the driver straddled the seat like a motorcycle. Benz's driver sat on a bench seat.
French historians point further back. Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir, a Belian-born resident of France, is rightfully the inventor of the automobile, they say. In 1863, Lenoir built a passenger vehicle with four wheels and an internal-combustion engine. In two years, his company sold 1,500 engines in France and England. Why doesn't that make him first? Because his was a two-stroke engine, the kind still used in most motorcycles today. Cars have four-stroke engines.
What do you think? Did Lenoir invent the car?
Meanwhile, in the United States, automotive history took a strange turn. Few have heard of George Selden. But in 1879 the lawyer applied for a patent on a "reliable road locomotive, simple, cheap, lightweight, easy to control and powerful enough to climb any ordinary hill." US patent No. 549160 was issued to him in 1895 without his having built a working prototype.
Nothing happened until Oct. 22, 1903. That's when Selden sued America's automakers, charging them with stealing his invention.
The lawsuit dragged on for years. Selden's sons built a working model of their father's car in 1905 to prove their case. The judge finally ruled on Sept. 15, 1909 - in favor of Selden! Automakers were in shock. One even agreed to pay $1 million to Selden in back royalties.
Henry Ford stayed cool and filed an appeal. The appeals-court judges announced a decision six weeks later. They upheld Selden's claim, but only against manufacturers using the Brayton engine. Since the Brayton was an outmoded two-stroke model and carmakers were using the Otto four-stroke, no one owed Selden a cent.
So where does Henry Ford fit in?
Ford's contribution was mass production. Automobiles were crafted piece by piece until Ford came along with his assembly lines and interchangeable parts. A Model T was $825 in 1908, but by 1924 it cost $290. That was a price many consumers could -and did - afford.
Images that move
In 1872, 23 years before Thomas Edison's Kinetophone, Eadweard Muybridge (Edward MY-bridj) settled a bet in England. When a horse gallops, do all four of its feet leave the ground? Or does it always keep one hoof on the turf? He set up 24 cameras, spaced apart. The cameras' shutters would be tripped when a string, stretched across the track in front of each one, was broken.
A horse and rider galloped past the cameras. As the horse snapped the strings, the cameras clicked. The result was a series of pictures of a horse galloping. (Yes, all four hooves leave the ground at once, at a certain point.) Muybridge traveled around, showing the still pictures in motion with a device he called a Zoopraxiscope.
The Zoopraxiscope was a link between still photography and "moving" pictures, a development that inspired Louis Le Prince.
Frenchman Le Prince was the first to announce that he would display his new invention - motion pictures! - in New York in September 1890. Le Prince had even obtained a US patent in 1888 for a "Method and Apparatus for Projection of Animated Pictures." But while on a train trip to that first appointment in New York, he vanished. Neither he nor his invention was ever heard from again.
The "persistence of vision" phenomenon that makes a series of still pictures appear to move had been known for centuries. Long before films, "magic lanterns" (early slide projectors) used such effects. Gadgets with names like Phasmatropes, Phenakistoscopes, Bioscopes, and Tachyscopes also used the principle. (Most of these devices no longer exist, not even in dictionaries.)
Hollywood gives credit to Edison for the Kinetophone (1891) as the first device for showing motion pictures. Viewers peered through a magnifying lens at images on film. Only one person at a time could see the movie. Some say the Kinetophone doesn't count. To be a movie, they say, it has to be seen by lots of people.
Edison improved his idea. George Eastman supplied rolls of his newly developed celluloid film with sprockets (holes) on either side so it could be pulled through a projector. But the idea of charging people money to see a film didn't occur to him. Edison thought he'd make a fortune selling motion pictures to people.
Brothers Louis and Auguste Lumire saw a Kinetophone demonstration in Paris in 1894. They set to work making a device that many people could view at once. Louis built the Cinmatographe, a camera-projector.
On March 22, 1895, the Lumires showed a film with their Cinmatographe for the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in Paris. The film showed workers leaving a factory. The first paying audience for a film was Dec. 28, 1895, when 33 people at Paris's Grand Caf saw the Lumires' "Workers Leaving the Factory" and "The Arrival of a Train." The latter film so unnerved the audience that some jumped out of their seats to avoid being hit by the train as it roared toward them!
On April 23, 1896, Edison presented the Vistascope, something we'd recognize today as a movie projector.