This video of a Curtiss Pusher is stunning. Had I been around when it was new, I would have stopped there!

Question: What processes led to the aircraft of today?

  1. Trial and error (evolution)
  2. Better understanding of aerodynamics (design)

The easy answer is "Both!" but I imagine the emphasis changed over time. We started with the idea of ornithopters (da Vinci) and continued with wood canvas and string. At what point did science truly take over from empiricism? Was it with the advent of fast computing power?

Of course, such are the advancements of knowledge that a pedal-powered ornithopter has been made although it looks very different from Leonardo's.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you can improve the question by applying stricter definitions of the terms evolution, design, science and empiricism. If I read between the lines, I get the feeling you are interested in how the roles of empiricism and rationalism in the evolution of aircraft design have changed over time. Note that both empiricism and rationalism have a role in science and in evolution of design. As it stands, your question contrasts empiricism with science, and evolution with design, but they are not opposite terms. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Mar 21, 2023 at 7:32

1 Answer 1


The main driving forces behind airplane progress have been 1) better materials to make them out of and 2) better engines to power them with.

Better materials mean greater strength and safety. Better engines mean more power and greater reliability.

Greater strength and more power mean more payload, speed, and range. More safety and reliability mean reduced costs and broader acceptance of the technology.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Of course, the main driving force behind better engines is better materials to make them out of :) $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Mar 21, 2023 at 5:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @sanchises, as a recovering ex-materials scientist, I agree 100%. Better lubricants too. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2023 at 16:43

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