Who Invented the Airfoil? A Historical Summary of Key Contributions

Key Takeaways:

  • Otto Lilienthal designed an early lift-generating aerofoil in 1891, pioneering airfoil research.
  • Horatio Phillips patented a cambered airfoil design in 1891 that produced lift.
  • The Wright brothers studied wing camber and its impact on lift in the early 1900s.
  • Ludwig Prandtl’s wind tunnel tests revealed thick airfoils could generate more lift before stalling.
  • Max Munk and Hermann Glauert advanced airfoil theory in the 1920s.


The invention and refinement of the airfoil have been instrumental in enabling human flight. But who exactly pioneered the airfoil that makes flight possible? The origin of the airfoil cannot be attributed to any single inventor but rather emerged through the incremental contributions of numerous engineers, scientists, and aviators over decades. By reviewing the progression of airfoil development, we can better appreciate the key figures who collectively brought this vital technology to fruition.

This article will provide a comprehensive historical summary of the major contributors to airfoil design, from the pioneering work in the late 1800s to the refinements of the 20th century. It will evaluate the breakthrough discoveries and experiments that gradually unlocked the complex aerodynamics of airfoils. Understanding this legacy of innovation provides perspective on how the foundational principles of flight emerged. For any engineer, pilot, or STEM student interested in aviation, this knowledge establishes critical context around the airfoil’s form and function.

By documenting the progression of airfoil knowledge, this article aims to give readers deep insight into an invention that literally lifted humanity into a new dimension of transportation. The story spans multiple countries and crosses centuries, propelled forward by scientists asking questions about the physics of flight. Each built their insights on the work of peers who came before them to systematically advance an idea. The result is an invention that elegantly applies physics and fluid mechanics in order to push the boundaries of what humans can achieve.

Early Airfoil Experiments

Who conducted the first airfoil experiments?

The earliest pioneer in understanding the airfoil was German aviation enthusiast Otto Lilienthal. Born in 1848, Lilienthal was fascinated by the prospect of human flight from a young age. Starting in the 1870s, he began rigorously experimenting with early glider designs with his brother Gustav. They meticulously tested over 2,000 wing designs to understand the physics of lift and drag.

In 1891, Lilienthal designed an elongated teardrop-shaped airfoil that could generate enough lift to make stable gliding flight possible. This breakthrough airfoil had a curved upper surface with maximum thickness about one-third from the front. Lilienthal successfully piloted many glider flights with his new wing design. He rigorously documented his efforts, cementing his legacy as one of the first aerodynamic researchers systematically studying airfoils and their ability to produce lift.

Early Airfoil Patents

Who patented some of the earliest airfoil designs?

In addition to Lilienthal’s empirical airfoil research, several other innovators patented early airfoil designs in the late 1800s.

In 1868, Francis Wenham, a council member of the British Aeronautical Society, patented the first cambered airfoil. His design curved the upper surface of the airfoil to enhance lift.

In 1891, Horatio Phillips patented a cambered airfoil with a curved upper surface and nearly flat bottom. Wind tunnel tests showed Phillips’ wing design produced more lift than flat wings.

These early airfoil patents demonstrated the advantages of curved surfaces. The asymmetric curve helps create region of lower pressure above the wing, producing lift. Wenham and Phillips’ fundamental insight about camber influenced future airfoil improvements.

Wright Brothers’ Breakthroughs

How did the Wright brothers advance airfoil designs in the early 1900s?

Although airfoil patents existed, successfully applying the wing shape to enable powered flight required further innovation. Orville and Wilbur Wright made critical breakthroughs in the early 1900s.

The Wrights studied the wing camber and its effect on lift. In 1901, they built a wind tunnel to conduct meticulous tests on airfoils and documented the impact of subtle shape changes. Their systematic experiments proved that careful airfoil refinement was key to conquering flight.

In 1903, the Wrights made the first sustained, piloted flight of a power-driven airplane thanks to their improved lightweight gas engine and wing designs. Their flyer incorporated a thin, cambered airfoil They tweaked their airfoil in subsequent years, increasing the camber to enhance lift.

The Wright brothers’ methodical research demonstrated airfoil optimization was instrumental in controlled flight. Their contributions accelerated aviation progress through a physics-based understanding of airfoils.

Prandtl’s Wind Tunnel Tests

How did Prandtl’s experiments reveal new airfoil physics?

In the early 20th century, Ludwig Prandtl pioneered groundbreaking aerodynamics research in Germany. In 1914, he built one of the first wind tunnels capable of testing full-scale airfoil sections.

Utilizing wind speeds up to 110 mph, Prandtl systematically tested different airfoils. He discovered that relatively thick airfoils, with maximum thickness about one-fifth from the leading edge, could generate significantly more lift at higher angles before stalling compared to thin airfoils.

Prandtl proved that the gentle curve of a thick wing profile caused air to flow smoothly across the top surface. This reduced pressure above the wing, resulting in greater lift. His insights established the aerodynamic advantage of thick airfoils for aircraft wings.

Munk and Glauert’s Theoretical Formulation

How did Munk and Glauert advance theoretical understanding in the 1920s?

While experiments provided invaluable data, mathematically formalizing airfoil aerodynamics could enable even greater advances.

In the early 1920s, German mathematician Max Munk devised a general theoretical model representing airfoil behavior. His formalism related the distribution of pressure across a wing’s surface to the resulting aerodynamic forces.

Around the same time, British aerodynamicist Hermann Glauert derived a mathematical transform to calculate an airfoil’s optimal shape based on desired performance. This linked airfoil geometry to lift, drag, and stall characteristics.

Munk and Glauert’s theoretical formulations enabled airfoil shapes to be strategically optimized rather than arrived at by trial and error. Their work demonstrated the power of analysis to accelerate progress.

Theodorsen’s Calculation Method

What innovation did Theodorsen introduce in the 1930s?

In 1931, aerodynamicist Theodore Theodorsen invented an elegant method to calculate the pressure distribution around an airfoil shape. This was a significant breakthrough in airfoil analysis.

Theodorsen, an immigrant from Norway, worked at the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA. His method represented airfoils using conformal mapping mathematical techniques. This allowed the complex airflow around a wing to be easily calculated.

Theodorsen’s approach transformed airfoil design from guesswork to quantitative optimization. Now engineers could methodically improve airfoils using aerodynamic first principles rather than wind tunnel experimentation alone. His work was one of the major achievements in airfoil theory of the 20th century.

Supercritical Airfoils

When were supercritical airfoils developed and why were they superior?

All the accumulated airfoil knowledge led to further game-changing innovations decades later. In the 1960s, aeronautical engineer Richard Whitcomb devised the supercritical airfoil at NASA. This new design reduced drag while optimizing lift, improving fuel efficiency.

Supercritical wings had a flattened upper surface and camber only near the trailing edge. This profile delayed the upper surface shockwave that contributes to drag. By minimizing drag, the supercritical wing provided major performance gains, allowing aircraft to fly faster and with less fuel.

When commercialized in the early 1970s, supercritical airfoils revolutionized airline economics. They continue to be widely used on nearly all transport aircraft today. Whitcomb’s innovative airfoil embodied the culmination of over a century of aeronautical research.

Conclusion: Collective Innovation Over Time

The development of the airfoil was not the product of a single eureka moment, but rather gradual enlightenment across generations. Otto Lilienthal, the Wright brothers, Prandtl, Theodorsen, and Whitcomb all unlock pieces of the puzzle through study and experimentation. Their torch of scientific inquiry was passed down over decades, with each contributor expanding the frontier of knowledge a bit further.

This legacy of innovation teaches us that even groundbreaking technologies are usually the result of collective effort and incremental progress by experts around the world. Our modern world is built on the shoulders of individuals who tirelessly dedicated themselves to advancing science and engineering. By standing on their shoulders, we enjoy technologies like airflight that long evaded humanity’s grasp. The evolution of the airfoil represents one of the great triumphs of persistence in subtly transforming an idea into reality.


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