In July 1869, when Wilbur Wright was two years old, and Orville was as yet unborn, a heavier than air flying machine successfully flew two half-mile circles in a tethered flight test. The craft was known as the Avitor.
Lost in Time
The Avitor has been largely forgotten. It was what we'd call a hybrid vehicle today, very unlike the craft later flown by the Wright Brothers. The Avitor flew well and successfully, but an accident with a prototype resulted in its development being halted prematurely. If development had continued, it's very likely that modern aircraft would be very different from what they are today.
Many of the design concepts of the Avitor are being rediscovered and applied to new aircraft development. Among these are aerodynamic lift from the aircraft body (Blended Wing-Body aircraft, today) and hybrid lift (lift from a combination of buoyancy, power, and aerodynamics.)
The Past is the Future
The closest thing to a modern day Avitor is currently in development by Northrop Grumman. It's a vehicle they call the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LERV. The name describes its use, something that can hang in the sky for long periods of time keeping an eye on things. The present program's goal is to develop a surveillance platform for use in Afghanistan. It is supposed to go there for operation testing within a year. First flight is to come this summer.
After a Brief 150 year Hiatus, the Return of Avitor?
There are other potential applications for this craft that Northrop intends to work toward. Perhaps by the Sesquicentennial of the Avitor's demonstration flight, we'll have our own 21st century Avitors roaming the skies.