A powered, heavier-than-air craft succeeded in taking off from the ground on October 9, 1890 — thirteen years before the brothers Wright took their flight. The craft used that fall afternoon 110 years ago was the Eole, a steam-powered craft with a somewhat bat-like appearance. The steam engine drove a single propeller, which extended beyond the nose of the Eole on a shaft.
The engineer/pilot of the ungainly vehicle was Clement Ader, a Frenchman born near Toulouse on April 2, 1841. After working as an engineer for the French railways (where he designed track-laying equipment) he turned his attention to the telephone. It was Ader’s success with improving the telephone that gave him the funding he needed to work on his dream — a flying machine.
Ader patented his design in the summer of 1890 and in the fall laid down his plans to fly. Working from a 200-meter long track on the grounds of the Chateau d’Armainvilliers near Gretz (roughly 19 miles southeast of Paris), Ader ‘set fire’ to his engine. After sufficient steam had built, he raced down the track and was airborne — gaining a height of between eight inches and one foot. The Eole flew at that height for some 50 meters (165 feet) and, unfortunately, suffered damage while returning to the ground. It was never repaired and never flew again.
Ader had flown — but it was not a controlled, sustainable flight, a feat that proved elusive until tamed by the Wrights from Ohio. Ader later claimed to have flown the Eole a second time, nearly a year later, but this is shown to have been a fabrication.
Seven years after his Avion No. 1, the Eole, Ader demonstrated his Avion III at Satory, near Versailles. The craft had twin steam engines driving twin props and this time, Ader also redesigned his launch track. It was circular. His efforts, witnessed by French military representatives, were less than impressive. The Avion III circled the track without rising. On the final attempt (October 14, 1897) the Avion III broke free of the track, caught in the soft earth and was damaged in the ensuing ground loop.
Although he defended his efforts as the true achiever of the first flight, Ader never attempted to fly again and first-flight honors were bestowed, almost universally, upon the Wrights. Still, Ader’s influence as an aviation pioneer has not gone un-noticed. Today, he can be cited for many great accomplishments, but perhaps his most enduring contribution was a single word: Ader’s ‘Avion’ is now — and has always been — the French word for airplane.