Shall we start with balloons in the 18th century?
How about the blimplike "ariel ships" that started to appear in the 1830's?
Or, how about the Ariel itself? In 1847, the Ariel, which looked like a first cousin of the Wright flier, achieved manned flight. And promptly disappeared from history, for lack of interest, after a few novelty news stories and an engraving.
John Montgomery, achieving controlled flight in a glider, then dying in a flight-related accident trying to perfect a design for a better-designed powered flier.
But on this day in 1903, the Wrights achieved the right flight at the right time, and the rest is history. What would have happened if, like today's recreation, the weather was less than favorable, and the Wright Flier never got airborne? Would it have been doomed to the fate of the Ariel?
And then I think of my father. Born in 1898, he was alive when manned flight was achieved. Then he became a flier for WWI, though (due to an accident when he was due to be shipped out), he never saw combat in Europe. Then he became a barnstormer. And designed aviation-related stuff for a while. (He was pals with Howard Hughes for a while, too.) I've also got a 1920's notebook full of his science-fictional-looking designs. In his production design career, he worked on projects from Toward the Unknown to Lafayette Escadrille to Call to Glory, and was buddies with a lot of Air Force brass. He trained a couple apprentices in art direction, the Jefferies brothers, who went on design the Enterprise.
I owe my love of flight and interest in it and its history to my father. In a life that spanned from 1898 to 1991, he saw everything from the invention of manned flight, to man on the moon, to the space shuttle. It must have been an amazing trip, and he shared most of it with me, in reminiscences. Thanks, Father. You were one heckuva interesting guy, and I'm proud to be your daughter.