Editor's note: The following is the introduction to the SA Classics issue, the Birth of Flight.

ALTHOUGH WE KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS—the airplane was invented; it changed the world—we can still feel the suspense of the time when many were trying and none had succeeded to fly. In this collection of Scientific American articles published at the turn of the last century, observations and reports about experiments with flying machines nearly vibrate with anticipation. The writers know that powered, controlled flight, “effected by means of an apparatus heavier than the air,” will happen soon. What they don’t know is who will do it, or how, or when.

“Will it fly?” a reporter asks in 1898 of a machine its French inventor called the “Avion.” Looking at its picture today, from this side of the millennium, we can say with certainty: no. The Avion is ambitious and wacky, a multi-steam-engine thing with a pterodactyl’s wings and propellers that look like giant serving spoons. But its first attempt at flight, witnessed by the magazine’s reporter, is not all that different from the first attempt by a more famous flying machine, witnessed by a few locals in a North Carolina fishing village. The Avion crashed, broke a wing and crumpled its weird propellers. Its pilot made repairs and vowed to try again. Five years later in Kitty Hawk, when Wilbur Wright slid into the hip cradle of his Flyer and was launched by catapult, he immediately overreacted to the movement of the elevator, crashed into the sand and broke the rudder. If the Wright brothers had invited to their trials the reporter who had covered the Avion’s brief moment in the air, he would have been justified in believing that the Flyer was just one more apparatus that had failed. But the Wrights sensed triumph; Orville cabled his father that very day, December 14: “Success assured. Keep quiet.”

I never tire of that scene on the Kitty Hawk dunes nor of the one three days later when it was Orville’s turn to fly. I can’t feel anything but delight at the thought that the great edifice of aeronautical research built in the 100-plus years that have followed December 17, 1903, rests on a foundation of experiments conducted by two brothers, politely taking turns. But with their smugness (“success assured”) and secrecy (“keep quiet”)—not to mention their lawsuits to prevent others from building on their success or pursuing parallel development—the Wright brothers turned the invention of the airplane into a rancorous business. They caused so much ill will that, in their own era, acknowledgment of their primacy was grudging, and today people looking back on that period feel compelled to choose sides. In the long run, who contributed more to aviation: the Wrights, or the most famous target of their lawsuits, Glenn Curtiss?

The Wrights won in court, but it was Curtiss who won the first prize offered in the U.S. for aeronautical achievement, the Scientific American trophy. Curtiss bagged it three years running, making him the permanent owner of the prize and confirming the importance of his contributions. The trophy resides today in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., and it’s a beauty. On its onyx base, an engraved plaque indicates how fast the technology of flight advanced in its infancy: In 1908 Curtiss won the trophy for flying a distance of 5,090 feet; in 1909, for flying 25 miles; and in 1910, for 71.5 miles. (The following year Calbraith Perry Rodgers, my favorite among the heroes of early aviation, strung such distances together and flew a Wright airplane all the away across the country. It took him 49 days—and 15 crashes.)

The airplane in the trophy’s bronze sculpture is not a Curtiss design, however, but one created by another pioneer, a tragic figure in the history of aviation. Samuel P. Langley, astronomer, physicist and third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, devoted years to investigations of aeronautics and constructed several successful research craft. The tragedy came when the scientist tried to increase the size of his models to something that could carry a man—specifically, his engine maker, Charles Manley. The larger craft had none of the flying characteristics of the smaller. The second time it was launched, from a houseboat on the Potomac River, it instantly dove into the water, nearly drowning Manley. Ridiculed by the press and criticizedfor wasting the government grant money that had funded his experiments, Langley abandoned his research. He died three years later.

This special collection of Scientific American’s articles on early aviation includes a tribute to the august scientist, published a few years after his death. An editor offers the opinion that “had it not been for an accident during launching, Prof. Langley’s aerodrome would probably have been the first machine to fly with a man on board.” The Smithsonian Institution thought so, too, and in 1914 shipped the battered aerodrome to Curtiss to prove it. Curtiss rebuilt and modified the craft and managed to coax out of it a few hops over Keuka Lake in upstate New York, whereupon the Smithsonian put it on exhibit with the label “the first man-carrying airplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.” For decades that decision deprived the institution of the actual airplane that was the first in the world capable of sustained free flight. Orville, incensed, loaned the Flyer to the Science Museum in London. By 1942 the Smithsonian had reversed its stance on the Langley aircraft, and Orville relented. After World War II, the Flyer came back to the U.S.

Looking at the two creations today, people will have little trouble picking the craft from which modern airplanes descended. Langley’s complicated, multisurfaced contraption is rooted in the last years of the 19th century; the Wright Flyer, despite having the elevator (to control pitch) in the front rather than the back, shares DNA with the Boeing 787. You can see that for yourself: Langley’s Aerodrome A hangs in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, and the Wright Flyer is on exhibit in the museum on the National Mall.

The drama of invention, in the stories of the famous and the not so famous, fills this collection from the Scientific American archives and also keeps us at Air & Space magazine routinely turning to the earliest days of flight for some of the most thought-provoking narratives in aviation history.