December 17, 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight of a powered, heavier-than-air machine.
All of those qualifiers are telling. The Montgolfier brothers in France demonstrated a hot air balloon in 1783. A year later, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard reached an altitude of 12,500 feet in a hydrogen balloon. Otto Lilienthal, a Pomeranian Engineer soared on winged gliders outside of Berlin in the 1890's. He believed flapping wings was the best method for powering flight and died in his attempt to become like a bird.
Wealthy, French born engineer, Octave Chanute made numerous glider flights outside of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, beginning in the 1896. Chanute visited the Wrights at Kill Devil Hills, NC in August of 1901.
Samuel Pierpont Langley applied $50,000 and the full resources of the Smithsonian to the problem of powered flight. This government project failed earlier in 1903 as the machine, launched from the top of a houseboat, dove precipitously into the Potomac river.
The Wrights, on the other hand, spending $3,000 of their own money, on their third field trip from their shop in Dayton, Ohio to the sandy shores of North Carolina, successfully piloted an aircraft that took off under its own power, flew for twelve seconds, then landed. Wilbur Wright took the controls for their fourth flight at noon on that Thursday in 1903 and piloted the aircraft for a sustained, controlled flight of fifty-nine seconds.