Who invented the Airfoil? (Invention Timeline Explained)

Many of the greatest inventions today are made up of dozens of other discoveries and innovations that most might not be familiar with. For example, everyone knows the airplane as one of the greatest inventions of mankind, but it would not be where it is now af not for the invention of the airfoil and its theories.

The great thing about histories and inventions is you’ll always find something incredible to dive into. In this case, we’ll be soaring into the deep blue sky with facts about the airfoil — ranging from its inception to its evolution over the years. Sometimes, history can be awesome, and the airfoil is one such example!

Who invented the first airfoil?

The invention of the airfoil is credited to more than one person, as the solid theory is separate from the actual invention. In this case, the person who invented the airfoil was Sir George Cayley, considered to be the first true scientific aerial investigator — the first to understand the forces of flight. 

The airfoil’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Sir George Cayley
    The first true aerial investigator, and inventor of the first airfoil

    George Cayley is known as the inventor of the airfoil. He had used the concept of the airfoil on the very first glider, which took flight in 1853. He would go on to develop a much more efficient cambered airfoil.

  • Wilbur and Orville Wright
    The Wright brothers, responsible for the first successful airplane

    In an incredible turn of events, the Wright brothers used the knowledge George Cayley built to take the very first successful flight. It would not have been possible without knowledge of airfoils.

  • Max Munk
    Developer of the thin airfoil theory.

    Max Munk was a German mathematician who devised the thin airfoil theory. The thing about the thin airfoil theory is that mathematical formulas were finally being added to the mix. Before the theories, work on airfoils and how they generated lift was mainly trial and error.

  • Hermann Glauert
    Refined the thin airfoil theory

    As Max Munk devised the thin airfoil theory, Hermann Glauert and quite a few others worked on refining the theory as much as possible. 

  • Richard T. Whitcomb
    Developer of the supercritical airfoil

    The invention of the NASA supercritical airfoil led to the creation of the supercritical wings. The SCW are currently used by various modern planes.

When was the airfoil invented?

The first airfoil was invented in 1853 by Sir George Cayley, with the invention of the very first glider. While the concept was still filled with trial and error at the time, it was undoubtedly a milestone on the road to true flight.

A brief history of the airfoil

The history of the airfoil touches upon many moments in the invention of the very first plane. It’s crucial to note that without the airfoil, everything else wouldn’t fall into place. The story of the airfoil starts with Sir George Cayley, often considered the first true aerial investigator. The idea of airfoils is to generate lift, and George developed the concept as much as he could with the invention of the glider, as well as his work on the much more efficient cambered airfoil.

The Wright brothers share the distinction of building the very first successful airplane, which naturally used the concept of airfoils to generate enough lift. Just about everyone knows about the Wright brothers, and their invention would convince many others to look into the potential of flight. Around the 1920s, Max Munk would devise the thin airfoil theory. The reason why the event was so crucial was the fact that until then, any work involving airfoils was accomplished through trial and error.

It would be the very first time that proper mathematical formulas were added to the mix. Hermann Glauert and quite a few others would work on refining the thin airfoil theory as much as they possibly could. Fast-forward to the 1960s, and Richard T. Whitcomb develops the supercritical airfoil. His design would go on to become the supercritical wing, which is used on the many planes of the modern age. 

The airfoil timeline

  1. 1853
    The invention of the first airfoil through the very first glider

    George Cayley invented the very first glider, which took from the concept of the airfoil. At this point, anything involving airfoils was more of a trial and error process. 

  2. 1903
    The first flight of Wright

    The Wright brothers took to the sky with the first successful airplane. Naturally, the reason why it was such a success was due to the concept of the airfoil.

  3. 1920s
    Development and refinement of the thin airfoil theory

    For the very first time, mathematical formulas were added to the development of airfoils. Developed by Max Munk and improved upon by Herman Glauert and other mathematicians, the airfoil theory continues to improve.

  4. 1960s
    Development of the NASA supercritical airfoil

    The invention of the NASA supercritical airfoil was one of the more crucial inventions in the world of flight.

Where was the first airfoil invented?

The first airfoil was invented in Germany, when George Cayley had his worker use the very first glider. It worked for a short time, before crash landing.

The importance of the first airfoil

  • People were using airfoils before it was put into proper theory

    George Cayley developed the very first glider with the principles of the airfoil before various mathematicians would improve on the theory.

  • A crucial piece in the puzzle of flight

    There’s no denying that without the airfoil, it wouldn’t be possible for modern flight to exist. The concept of airfoils is to generate lift and allow mankind to take flight, and it accomplished its goal with flying colors.

  • Opened up a new avenue for mathematicians interesting in flight

    Max Munk’s creation of the thin airfoil theory opened up plenty of new opportunities for mathematicians to perfect the concept of flight.

  • A sign of things to come

    More and more discoveries and inventions litter the world of flight. The airfoil paved the way to space, the final frontier.

The airfoil by the numbers

  • 1915The year the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) was created. Its primary purpose was to develop more advanced airfoils.
  • 18NACA Technical Report No. 18 was called Aerofoils and Aerofoil Structural Combinations, which was released in 1917.
  • 1974The year when Sir George Cayley was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.
  • 4The airfoil is composed of 4 parts – the leading edge, the trailing edge, the chord, and the camber.

Five facts about the airfoil

  • The principle of airfoil shapes and concepts

    One of the great things about the airfoil concept and shape is how it can be used to improve other parts of a plane. For example, the plane’s fuselage body was designed based on the airfoil shape and concept.

  • A downward force on the air

    For those curious about how airfoils work, the conventional airfoil can generate lift by exerting a downward force on the air as the plane moves forward. If the airfoil does its job, a plane moving forward at a fast enough speed will eventually lift.

  • Thick and thin airfoils

    If the plane is designed for low speeds, the airfoil is built much thicker. On the other hand, if the plane is designed for high speeds, a thinner airfoil becomes necessary. 

  • Why fix what isn’t broken

    These days, even some of the most advanced planes still use the same NACA-developed airfoil sections. These sections were developed in the 30s and 40s, which is surprising considering how quickly the world of flight advanced over the years.

  • A lull in the progress of the airfoil

    During the 1950s, NACA focused on hypersonic and supersonic aerodynamics, halting the development of airfoils. It wasn’t until Richard T. Whitcomb developed the supercritical airfoil that NACA returned to its primary focus.

FAQ about the airfoil

  • Are the wings and airfoils the same thing?

    Good question! It might seem like wings and airfoils are the same thing, but there’s a big difference. If the wingspan is sliced with a plane parallel to the plane of the aircraft, the intersection is called an airfoil. It might seem somewhat complicated, but it’s easier to comprehend than you might think!

  • How exactly does an airfoil lift a plane?

    Put simply, the wings can lift the plane when the air pressure above the wing is lowered. The airfoil achieves this through its unique shape. The curved surface takes longer for the airflow to travel, creating a difference in air pressure. Such is the reason why the plane eventually takes flight when it picks up enough speed.

  • Why does the shape matter so much when it comes to airfoils?

    The reason why the shape matters so much is it determines how the airflow goes through the plane as it moves forward. With the right shape and wingspan, it’s possible to generate enough lift for a plane to take flight.

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