Controlled, powered flight had seemed impossible until Orville Wright took off on the 17th December 1903. The key to the Wright Brother's success was that their engineering had gone beyond the trial and error methods of their contemporaries. Having only very limited resources they showed great scientific ingenuity.
When their test flights did not produce as much lift as they had expected, they went back to first principles and carried out a series of scientific experiments, starting with the bicycle balance and moving on to their famous wind tunnel experiments. They were the first to understand how the lift from the aerofoil changes in flight, and the first to design their propellers as a form of aerofoil.
The Wright Brothers designed the 1903 Flyer to protect themselves from injury whilst they learnt to fly. Their canard design was safer in a stall but a web-based version of Frederick Hooven's flight simulation demonstrates how difficult it must have been to control.